Morton Marcus (1936-2009)

The news has reached us today of the death of poet, film critic and teacher Morton Marcus. Mort was a dear friend of mine and I knew he was in declining health, but today’s news still comes as a deep shock.

In tribute to Mort, I want to re-run this story I wrote about him in 2008 upon the publication of his magnum opus, his autobiography/literary memoir “Striking Through the Masks.” It really gets to the essence of the man:

Is Morton Marcus a man of contradictions?

Well, he is a professional poet, and what poet worth his metaphors is not a mass of contradictions, obsessions and warring intentions?

Consider, for instance, this whole business about his new book, “Striking Through the Masks: A Literary Memoir” (Capitola Books). It is a book that was never supposed to happen.

“I never intended to write my memoirs,” said the author who will, nevertheless, celebrate the publication of that memoir at a public reading and booksigning March 13.

“I have written against writing memoirs because it’s too self-involved, and writers should be involved more with the world than with themselves. And what I’ve seen going on for the last 20 years in American literature is all these self-involved kids, and older people, talking about family dysfunction and how they hated their father and mother. I really didn’t want that. I think writing has to be much bigger than that. It has to include society. It has to include the world.”

How then to jibe the writing of a memoir with the very public disavowal of such a practice?

Marcus says it himself – “include the world.”

“Masks” works as a kind of two-fer. On one hand, it’s a spirited, absorbing, at times brutally honest account of a heroic 20th-century literary life. Marcus has been a familiar face on the Santa Cruz cultural scene for more than 35 years, as a published poet of national repute, as a long-time teacher at Cabrillo College, as host of KUSP’s “The Poetry Show,” as a contributor to this newspaper and other publications, as the co-host of the film criticism TV program “Cinema Scene” and as the leader of a regular film discussion group at the Nickelodeon. Yet, even with a beloved (and not so beloved) figure of that kind of local celebrity, the new memoir reveals what is sure to be surprises even to Marcus’s close friends.

On the other hand, “Masks” is a nearly encyclopedic catalogue of great writers of the age – Raymond Carver, Robert Bly, Czeslaw Milosz, Al Young, Andrei Codrescu, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Charles Simic, James Houston and more – told from a writer who knew them all as friends and colleagues.

Marcus was originally approach to write just that, a personal account of a variety of contemporary authors that he had come to know in his almost-50-year career as a poet and teacher. He credits the late novelist Gina Berriault as his inspiration to fold his own story into the stories he told of his fellow writers.

“But if I were going to write a memoir,” he said, “there had to be a theme, which became my education and how I became the person I became, ethically, metaphysically, everything.”

Early on in the handsome illustrately book is evidence to suggest that the literary life was an unlikely path for the young Morton Marcus, that he was more likely to lead a more disreputable life. On pages 12 and 13 are reproductions of front pages of New York newspapers from the fall of 1941 reporting the gangland slaying of a Jewish mobster named Abe Bebchick. That was Marcus’s Uncle Abe.

Bebchick ran the numbers racket in Brooklyn in the late 1930s and was the head of Marcus’s extended family, a group of Slavic immigrants who, with their aggressively sharp-elbows way of life in the crucible of Depression-era America, have come to obsess Marcus over the years.

“All of these people are just larger than life. They just take the risks and do the stuff that has to be done. We’ve all become very tame as human beings compared to what they were.”

Marcus was born in 1936 in Brooklyn. His father left his mother him when the boy was 3. “I only ever saw him twice again in my life.” Growing up he was shuttled back and forth between boarding schools – which he refers to as “Oliver Twist gruel houses” – and, even when he was home, he endured the horror of witnessing a stepfather – “husband number 4 or 5 or 6,” he says – brutally abuse his mother, beating her, pulling her hair, attempting to drown her in the bath. Even Marcus admits such an upbringing is highly unlikely to produce a literary lion.

“There is an enormous rage inside me and I know it,” he said. “Masks,” then, is an attempt to figure out how he got from Point A, a kid reared in an atmosphere of violence, and Point B, the man he is now.

Another aspect of the man’s personality serves his memoir well, at least to the reader, if not for those mentioned in the book. Marcus brings to the book a fearless kind of honesty – at least, an honesty as he sees it; even Marcus is quick to admit that honesty isn’t the same as accuracy . Friends and family members may blanch at some of the details in the book that are both generous and unsparing. Many of those who are the brunt of criticism are some of the most luminary names in contemporary American literature. The late Wallace Stegner is portrayed as spiteful and passive-aggressive. Robert Bly, who is often credited as one of the great popularizers of poetry in the mainstream, is accused of intellectual hipocrisy. On the other hand, figures such as Tillie Olsen, Al Young and Raymond Carver are the subjects of some of Marcus’s most tender and heartfelt tributes.

Such reactions point to another dominant theme of Marcus’s book, the clash between the aggressive, emotional, honest-at-all-costs approach embodied by Marcus, and credited by him to his Slavic roots, and the laconic, close-to-the-vest, inscrutable emotional style particularly common in the Western American male and many of the friends and colleagues with whom Marcus has been close over the years.

“Many of the people I consider my good friends are – I’ll just say it right now – are these uptight WASPs. And dealing with them has been very difficult for me. But you know what? It’s been very difficult for them to deal with me. Very difficult.”

As a result, the book is replete with stories of Marcus finding himself in situations that inevitably led to confrontations, many of them life-altering confrontations, from youthful tales of enduring humiliations at the hands of anti-Semitic bullies to accounts of surviving the not-always-forthright dealings of the literary world.

The story with the most metaphorical resonance in the book is about a poetry reading in which Marcus read poems about the collapse of his first marriage with his ex-wife weeping in the audience as he read, a decision that opened him up to criticism from Bly and his close friend, the poet Joseph Stroud, both of whom were present at the time. Marcus admits that it was hard to do, but necessary to serving the art form.

“Art is a very hard view of the world, no matter how uncomfortable it is.”
Marcus – who survived a health scare last fall that had him wondering if he would live to see the publication of the book – is the first to declare that “Striking Through the Masks” is imperfect as history. But it does work as a kind of testament to holding close to emotional honesty, whatever the costs. It’s a lesson, he said, that he learned very early in life, when his mother wouldn’t allow him to hide from the bullies that tormented him.

“I’ve come to realize that I really couldn’t be frightened and live this life. Life was not worth living if I had to be afraid all the time. That’s all there was to it. And this is a larger issue that I never would have faced back then, but if I had to die in order to not be frightened, then I would die.”


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