Susan Cheever is the author of 16 books, including novels, biographies and a memoir about her father, John Cheever. She has taught at Yale, Brown, Bennington and the New School for Public Engagement.
Memoir is the chameleon of literature. A memoir can be a biography or an autobiography, philosophical musing or literary history, how-to or self-help; or, like Tom Shroder’s fascinating memoir, “The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived,” it can be all of the above.
Shroder’s biographical subject is his grandfather MacKinlay Kantor, one of the most famous and successful writers in the world in the middle of the 20th century who is now all but forgotten. A friend of Ernest Hemingway and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1955 Civil War novel “Andersonville,” Kantor was the celebrated author of more than 30 novels, dozens of short stories, articles and even some wildly popular epic poems. Born in Iowa to a newspaper editor and an unregenerate con artist, Kantor was a reporter during World War II, the kind who flew bombing missions over Germany and was present at the liberation of Buchenwald in 1945. Living in his dream house on Siesta Key in Florida, Kantor was driven by his own prodigious talent, as well as large quantities of alcohol, which fueled a life of celebration and infidelity. He had married his high school sweetheart, but as Shroder discovered, Kantor’s various adulteries were part of their unspoken contract.
As Shroder vividly tells the story of this larger-than-life writer who was a generous and often doting grandfather, he contemplates the fleeting nature of fame. A writer who studied with the novelist Harry Crews at the University of Florida and became an editor at The Washington Post, Shroder mulls over the rave his grandfather got on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. He realizes that he had often dreamed of receiving a review like that for himself. “After years of downplaying my grandfather’s literary significance,” he writes, “I suddenly found myself comparing it to my own. If he was ultimately insignificant, what was I?”
Kantor’s story is fascinating — a biographical gold mine and an object lesson in the ultimate fading away of the best-selling, prize-winning success many writers dream about. But it is just one of three books folded into this valuable memoir. The second book is Shroder’s research primer about pursuing Kantor’s story. He begins at the Library of Congress, where 50,000 Kantor items are filed in 150 boxes and he is allowed to look at a few folders at a time. He travels to his sister’s house in Atlanta to examine some old — he predicts valueless — boxes that turn out to be essential, and he even combs through his own cupboards. He takes us step by step through his Internet searches, showing how looking by dates often turns up new information. With the intensity of a man after a story, he describes noticing things and remembering anecdotes that he somehow didn’t find important at the time.
But the third and most compelling story in the book is that of Shroder’s struggle with writing. Shroder, who has never been able to write fiction despite many tries, is unusually honest about the difficulties of the writing process. “I know from experience that despair is always the first stage of writing — or as Ernest Hemingway put it, ‘the first draft of anything is s---,’ ” he explains. Writing is not fun for Shroder, and it wasn’t for Kantor, either. Amazed by his grandfather’s ability to churn it out, even at one point on board a ship — the Covadonga — in a storm on the way to Spain in 1953, Shroder writes that “completing any book, even under ideal conditions, requires an almost superhuman ability to focus and ignore distractions. Simply sailing the ocean on sedate seas would, for me, be a recipe for literary paralysis.”
Noting that his grandfather, even at his most successful, was always hard up — “When you’ve been a writer as long as I have,” Kantor wrote, “nothing inspires you except a check” — Shroder is eloquent about his own wrestling with the muse. “There come just too many soul-crushing moments when all you’ve written seems gibberish, and all possible paths forward look to end against a unclimbable wall, or over the edge of a cliff,” he writes. As for the rewards of writing, he is equally scathing. “When we imagine our book being published — our book! — we are imagining it will be like those books we grew up on, adored by the critics, imitated by the competition, worshiped by the masses. We are most definitely not imagining that it will join those endless Pyrrhic volumes whose indecipherable bindings fruitlessly wallpaper bookstores, libraries, and the dusty reaches of the neighbor’s den; those anonymous, sparsely read, already forgotten legions of books that will never merit so much as a footnote in the history of literature.”
The fleeting, shape-shifting nature of fame and talent have obsessed Shroder before. As an editor, he is famous for cooking up a demonstration of this with the writer Gene Weingarten. In 2007, they persuaded world-famous Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell to play rousing classics on his priceless Stradivarius during morning rush hour outside the L’Enfant Plaza station of the D.C. Metro. Bell, wearing a baseball cap, left his violin case open for change as though he were just another busker. He played gorgeously for almost 45 minutes; very few people noticed. More than 1,000 commuters streamed by; one recognized him. Weingarten won a Pulitzer for the story.
What is our writing worth, anyway? How long will it last and what will it mean to our readers? In writing a history that is also a meditation on writing, Shroder has created a book that is as useful as it is fascinating. Will it still be read in 50 years? Who knows. As the poet T.S. Eliot contemplating the same questions wrote in his masterpiece, “Four Quartets”: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”