By Michael Rumaker
Black Mountain Press, 544 pp., $25
Michael Rumaker's Pagan Days fictionalizes his years from birth to age nine in a tender, frightening story within a chiaroscuros delineated by the Great Depression: poverty, physical abuse, a child's gay-nature spirit opening, familial love amidst dysfunction, and social struggle. Rumaker's newest work, Black Mountain Days, continues his memoir project told through multiple lenses--one moment a bird's eye view--the next, intimate and close.
Rumaker, aside from his famous connection to Black Mountain College, is most noted for the classic fiction Gringos and Other Stories and numerous essential gay works including the poem "The Fairies are Dancing All Over the World," "My First Satyrnalia" and "A Day and a Night at the Baths." Rumaker's prose sparkles. His fiction portrays characters of compelling complexity. Along with John Rechy, Rumaker was one of the first bad boys of American fiction. Now one finds he is equally at home painting the psychological and personal traits of real people. Although the individuals in Black Mountain Days possess an emotional frisson for Rumaker, his skill resists sentimentality, advancing a restrained, witty, and graceful detachment.
Founded in 1933, Black Mountain College became a center of educational and artistic exploration in direct contradiction to contemporary norms. In its 24 years, and because of its unconventional approaches, the college went through many changes. However, its core principles--utopian in thought--that students and faculty existed on equal footing, the Socratic method's critical importance, the fertility of learning by doing and communal living, and a revolutionary artistic aesthetic, remained vibrant until the college's last days. Perhaps they even contributed to its demise as these principles segued uneasily into modern life.
Rumaker's perceptive skills are at high pitch. According to his fellow Black Mountaineers, Rumaker gets it all just right--the self-shattering and discipline-granting influence of the learning methods, the disorderly and sometimes even riotous turmoil of life on campus, the affectionate and compassionate friendships forged and broken, and the personal effort to understand himself and to mature as an artist.
From his first meeting with the college's rector and primary artistic force, Charles Olson, on the day of his arrival at the college, to their last meeting in 1958 (a few years after the college closed), Olson became a seminal force in Rumaker's life. He describes Olson as "the first total person I'd ever glimpsed" and then in a few elegant paragraphs depicts "the tallest man I'd ever laid eyes on" flaunting a "curiosity and enthusiasm sprawling and darting over enormously wide fields." Their last visit is an oddly unresolved moment, reflecting Rumaker's then spiraling alcoholism and detour into boring jobs and endless sex. His last view of Olson is of a monster of a man clamoring up a rotting pier piling in Provincetown "with his heavy thighs, his long arms going up hand over hand over his big head, splinters flying." That's the same Olson that Rumaker had come to worship--inspiring teacher, stunning talker, and tender, tough, cruel, self-centered, immensely wise father who, with a feminine fragility and bombast, held seductive sway over both women and students.
All of Rumaker's portraits work through such an accumulation of felicitous details. In Olson's case--the giant uncontainable genius cast aside from the most intriguing educational experiment in American history, father to some of the most influential literary growth in the last 200 years, Rumaker's true father--lingers, in the end, on those pilings, waving at us, representative of Black Mountain and its cultural legacy.
The care, the regard, paid each idiosyncratic person in this story is Rembrandtian. Among the figures he recalls in addition to Olson are Olson's first and second wives; faculty members Lou Harrison, M. C. Richards, Robert Creeley, Hilda Morley, Joe and Mary Fiore, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage; visiting faculty Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Maria Von Franz; and fellow students Jonathan Williams, Fielding Dawson, and Merrill Gillespie. Rumaker's recounting of the power struggle between Olson and Natasha Goldowski is memorable for its insight into Olson and the aesthetic and power conflicts that plagued the school. His stories of taking French with Natasha's mother "Madame" are hilarious.
Black Mountain Days teems with epiphanies of Rumaker's growing awareness. Although not totally uneasy in his sexuality when he arrived, Black Mountain's atmosphere of live-and-let-live experimentation allowed him to finally encounter young love--even if a bit one-sided in its purity and devotion. His growing confidence and acknowledgement as a writer accelerates quickly under Olson's tutelage. The artists who taught or visited the school embraced "Know Thyself" as a central maxim that at times became a insistent rule, almost brutally forced, and at other times benevolently encouraged. But the book is not without delightfully funny stories of softball games with the locals, all-night parties, car accidents, concerts, and illicit, failed, or happy love affairs.
Black Mountain was the first place Rumaker ever belonged, and remains, even now, a touchstone of his life and being. Black Mountain Days conveys a deep sense of gratitude and even longing for the surprising affirmations he gained there in his early 20s. In the book's final chapters we find Rumaker besieged by inner demons in the real world--a world unable to, as Black Mountain could, focus those demons into inspiration. Ultimately, his Black Mountain days gave him the courage, skill and self-worth he needed to finally throw off those demons. As with most of the Black Mountain artists and writers, the mainstream has ignored the subtle qualities that distinguish his work in exchange for surface flash and comfortable confession.
Black Mountain Days is a fine example of how the memoir can tell more than just the history of dysfunction or display the ego. In it Rumaker exiles ego and embraces an amusing, stylish, refreshing look at an institution and a multitude of personalities--including his own--that can teach us much about the failure of modern education, the value of the creative life, and the difficulties one faces in becoming one's self. There are a number of excellent histories and memoirs of the later, artistic period at Black Mountain. I believe this one to be the most creatively outstanding, the most sensitively and evenhandedly written, of them all. Along with Mara Emma Harris's The Arts at Black Mountain, Martin Duberman's Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, and the recently published Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art by Vincent Katz, Rumaker's memoir should become essential reading for anyone interested in education and American art.
Michael Rumaker will be reading from Black Mountain Days, Monday, Oct. 20 at the Regulator Bookshop, and Wednesday, Oct. 22 at Branch's in Chapel Hill.