Leverett T. Smith, Jr
Michael Rumaker's Black Mountain Days as Autobiography
When it was published in 2003, Michael Rumaker's Black Mountain Days was praised by reviewers and others for its evocation of life at the experimental North Carolina college and particularly of the individuals who comprised the college's community, poet Charles Olson the most central. In a recent interview in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Rumaker himself says "my plan was to include everyone from the cooks, Malrey and Cornelia, to farmer Doyle Jones and wife Clare, to all-around hand TJ, as well as the students and faculty members - in short, those of us who peopled that strange and exhilarating 600 acres in the mountains of western North Carolina in the early 1950s." No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Memoir."
But the most important element of Black Mountain Days is the autobiographical. In praising the book in an e-mail to Rumaker, novelist Russell Banks remarked that "best of all is the self-portrait, indirectly presented." For reviewer Robert McDonald in the Lamda Book Report, Black Mountain Days "becomes Rumaker's total autobiography." Rumaker himself, at the beginning of the book, wonders whether Black Mountain College could be the place where he "could finally learn to write" and where he "could find a place to be" (31). These are the stories that give the book its shape. As Rumaker treats broadly every aspect of his experience at Black Mountain College, his portraits tend to focus on the question of gender, a central conflict in his own life. His use of his biological family, his portraits of the women at the college, his portrait of Charles Olson, and his portrait of himself at the college, all point to this central conflict. This memoir that so well evokes the life and inhabitants of Black Mountain College is, as Rumaker's nephew Patrick says in an e-mail, "all autobiographical." What matters, finally, is the shape the narrator sees in his own life.
Rumaker's biological family has a surprisingly large presence in the narrative. He begins Black Mountain Days with a short genealogical sketch of his family, a beginning to which some readers have objected. One reviewer speaks of "a pedestrian . . . account of his ancestry" (Asheville Citizen-Times 9/3/03). Regardless, it sets up some of the central motifs of his narrative - most importantly the centrality of his own development. More generally, it indicates that family, and notions of family, will be an important motif in the narrative. In addition, the shape of the sketch is important. Rumaker begins his brief family history with his mother, not his father, another hint that patriarchal notions of family organization will be questioned, and that questions of gender will be central.
For Rumaker, questions of home and family are important. Not only does he speak often of his biological family, but images of home and family define his response to life at the college. Black Mountain College "was, for many of us, our first and only real home" (458). Looking around him at age twenty-one, he sees at the college that "the Olsons, mainly because of Charles' patrimonial hugeness, were very much like the unacknowledged 'father' and 'mother' of Black Mountain, the rest of us more or less siblings, or, as with Wes and Bea Huss, say, aunts and uncles, Joe and Mary Fiore, big brother and sister, the familial structure of the college unconsciously but inescapably patterned, in my own head anyhow, on the ancient extended tribal family" (316).
Rumaker regards himself as one of "the lost sons who had wandered into Black Mountain, strays looking for a way, and a place, to be, many of us not unlike the stray dogs that wandered onto the campus from the surrounding hills, whipped curs, fiercely angry and . . . just as fierce to find a home" (141).This family group is initially contrasted, then often compared, with Rumaker's biological family. At first it's clear that Rumaker's home at Black Mountain College is to be contrasted with his home with his biological family. Almost immediately, we learn that he is alienated from his family; his "father, with my mother's silent assent, had kicked me out of the house for not going to church and for being queer" (12). At home, after his first visit to the college, he feels trapped. "I began to feel the old sensation of being stifled and choked within those walls, where eleven of us had lived cramped together, where poverty and religion had been like a vise clamped tight around the house, where I had felt my spirit and imagination, my very life, suffocating" (39). Spending his first Christmas at the college, the young Rumaker decides against spending "time with a family I was still deeply conflicted about, particularly with my father" (106). The Christmas dinner at Black Mountain, Rumaker finds, "was like a family all together, more so than I felt with my own family - I knew that day this was my home now" (107).
But the contrast between Rumaker's two homes is no simple contrast; points of comparison become more and more important. In order to "wake from the sleep of my mother and . . . quit running from my father," the young Rumaker must do more than enjoy the fellowship at the college. In many ways, he finds himself in the same predicament at the college that he was at home. For instance, at the college, Rumaker finds himself torn between two powerful figures - Charles Olson and Natasha Goldowski. "I also had a strong realization of seeing myself again, in the moment, as I had long ago begun to feel as a child with the struggles between my mother and father, caught once more between the pull of differing affections and loyalties, the same as I felt also between Connie and Charles, and between Natasha and Charles, that I was once again strung out on a precarious tightrope, being extremely careful to veer neither to one side nor the other, feeling the need for each on either side of me to serve as surrogate props, for balance, utterly aware of the riskiness of dropping one at the expense of the other, trying to keep both - mother-father/Natasha-Charles/Connie-Charles - in an evenness of balance, in a torsion of suspension and still-childish need" (179-180). A large part of Rumaker's story will concern how the young Rumaker overcomes - or doesn't overcome - this childishness.
Most importantly, the two families are similar in that there is the same image of maleness in each. Rumaker's relation to his biological father emerges frequently. In remembering his work habits at Black Mountain College, Rumaker says that "fear, often unadmitted, ran my life at the time. Starting at home, I'd done everything double, everything just right, especially to please my demanding father, for fear of being thrown away, for fear of being thrown out if I didn't, but nothing I did was ever right enough to suit him, and I was tossed out in the end anyway . . . . That fear was still very strong in me at Black Mountain . . . . I'd begun to feel that I'd really found a home, . . . and those same fears of my childhood were just as strong here in this second, more meaningful home" (137-138). He concludes that at Black Mountain he had to be "a good little queer child, really, who knew he'd better watch his step" (138).
Rumaker's biological father remains primarily a negative influence in his life. Rumaker speaks of his father's sexuality as "that dark, nether side of him which he carefully hid from" his sons, and from himself as well (180-181). He describes himself as "deeply fearful" of his father (363). Very late in the book, running for help after some locals had knocked Olson down, he is reminded again of his father, "of the particular hard violence of these men, not unlike that I'd known as a child in my father" (485). This notion of maleness, called "testosterone grimness" in another context, has imprisoned Rumaker's father and most other males in the 1950s, even those at Black Mountain College including the young Rumaker himself.
Meanwhile, as Rumaker remembers, females have an unusual prominence in Black Mountain Days. They receive his attention equally, when they're not given primary place, as when Rumaker first arrives at the campus for a visit. Then he is met and shown around, not by Charles Olson, who will eventually become his mentor and his "spiritual father," but by Olson's wife Connie, whose importance is thus underlined. During the course of the memoir we get vivid pictures of many of the other women at the college. Rumaker comments pointedly on "the vital presence of several strong women on campus, such as Natasha Goldowski, M.C. Richards,, Karen Karnes, and Hazel Frieda Larsen" (444). Not only does he give women prominence in his account of life at the college, but he also gives prominence to the "womanly" in himself.
A key figure in the book is Jungian psychologist Maria von Franz, who visited Black Mountain College in the winter of 1953. As Rumaker puts it, she arrived "just in the nick of time for [Olson], for me, for us all" (156). He "just knew this small, frumpy, plain-faced woman . . . was the seer herself, an anima archetype who appeared in all complexions and in many guises in my own dreams . . . knew that she had much to tell me, just as in my dreams such female figures, if I could read their message, had much to signal to me . . ." (161). Rumaker received such signals from both von Franz and other women around him at Black Mountain College.
On the other hand, roles for women in the college community were restricted. The young Rumaker senses the frustration, particularly among married women, at Black Mountain. Mary Fitton Fiore, never herself depicted as frustrated, "once told [Rumaker] she believed - 1950s America was everywhere, even permeating Black Mountain - it was what a woman should do, 'take care of her man and the kids'" (185). She gave up her writing after her marriage to Joe Fiore. Likewise, Betty Kaiser found herself in a "passive, self-effacing role, all but blotted out in [Charles Olson's] huge shadow" (183). This kind of role has ugly consequences for wives. Rumaker wonders if "those reddish eruptions [on Bea Huss's face] - psoriasis perhaps - weren't exacerbated by smothered anger, perhaps against Wes and his volatile temper . . ." (201). In Helene Dorn, too, Rumaker notices "a suggestion of dazed and smoky hiddenness in her eyes, a signal of unease and confusion betraying the radiant, ready laughter always playing nervously about her lips" (439). Finally, Rumaker describes biologist Victor Sprague's wife as "another woman on campus with dread not far beneath the surface of her dark eyes"(136). Women were trapped, imprisoned in the roles they found for themselves in the 1950s, even at Black Mountain College.
But not all women. Many of the female students Rumaker describes - Pat Nelson and Ellen Schlasberger are good examples - seem living happy and fulfilled lives, perhaps because they had the temporary role of student. Among the older women whose lives seem full of strength and purpose are Mary Fitton Fiore, despite her decision to exchange her writing career for being a housewife and mother, Karen Karnes, perhaps because she's left her husband David Weinrib, and Natasha Goldowski, particularly as Rumaker encounters her after she has left the college. The older Rumaker looks back on her and Olson as twins, and exclaims "given more of a mutual acceptance, more respectful leeway on both their parts, what a force they could have been for Black Mountain College! Equal partners sharing in strength and responsibility, the equal of himself, the equal of herself" (187). These are "strong women whose lives were passionate" (190). They prevailed even in the atmosphere of the 1950s.
Most importantly, Rumaker discovers in these women something about himself. At one point he says "there was in Betty [Kaiser] a wonderful spirit I resonated to, . . . something I could never put my finger on, or name, but was there strongly nonetheless - some bond, some subtle chord of sympathy and understanding, so subtle as to barely register, but ineffably powerful in its own way, something that nourished me in a different way than Charles did - a deep and secret identity beyond words, before words" (310). An older Rumaker later in the book underlines the importance of "female power in art . . . at least a space for it to exist, however limited that space" at Black Mountain. "Hence," he concludes, "I was loyal to the world Charles personified, yet also loyal, in secret, to the 'female' world . . . worlds of overt and hidden powers, one hurly-burly, the other fine tuned, which Charles, I suspected, on a grander scale, wrestled with too" (444). The female world Rumaker presents most forcefully in the figure of Connie Olson, whose relationship with Charles Olson we see disintegrate in the course of Rumaker's time at Black Mountain.
Initially encountering her as a visitor to the college, Rumaker responds first to her smile, "a smile that seemed to well up from some deep and private place, one of the warmest I'd ever seen. Close up, she really had the most sensitive face with dark eyes that had an edge of sadness and inward contemplation. Everything was fine about her, not only her facial features, but her hands, her slight body as well. She was like a finely proportioned and delicate bird" (17). In making his decision to attend the college, Rumaker cites his impressions of "Charles and Connie, both of whom emanated such vital and attractive energy, although in different ways: Connie, the quieter strength, the more pointed intelligence; Charles, I could already sense, with curiosity and enthusiasm sprawling and darting over enormously wide fields" (31). Here Rumaker gives Connie an equality of influence. In four separate episodes in the book, he dramatizes her vivid character, her deteriorating relations with Olson, and his own sense of identification with her.
In the first of these, the young Rumaker witnesses Connie's struggles getting herself and her daughter from a rowboat on Lake Eden back onto land as Olson offers advice, laughs at her trouble, and does not help. Rumaker is first made aware of the situation by hearing Olson's "booming laugh"; Olson is "thoroughly amused at Connie's lack of even the barest 'seamanship'" (133). He's sitting on the screen porch, watching Connie's efforts, and "in between shouting instructions to Connie, . . . sharing his merriment in sly asides to whoever it was" (133). This is clearly not Olson's best side. Rumaker remembers how Connie looked: "her features were a mixture of anger and fear and bent pride" (133-134). After getting safely on shore, she picks up daughter Kate and carries "her off in her arms through the tall marsh grass, heading toward the Olson's apartment in South Lodge, in no way acknowledging Charles' taunting laughter, eyes set straight ahead, her cheeks hotly flushed, not even looking toward the dining porch" (134). Rumaker remembers how he responded to this scene, wondering particularly "why I hesitated to help Connie." He concludes that "it brought to the surface a conflict in myself regarding Charles . . . whose own attitudes about women couldn't help but affect us in some way or another. And I think it was that, . . . fearful of appearing to take sides, of arousing yet one more time the displeasure of Charles, whose favor I needed at that time more than I did Connie's" (134). Here Rumaker senses his conflict with Olson about the relation of the sexes but feels he can do nothing about it.
A second episode depicts Connie putting down Charles and offers an older Rumaker a chance to generalize on the relations between the sexes in the 1950s, as illustrated by Connie and Charles. Rumaker is told of an occasion when Connie displayed indifference to the magazine publication of one of Olson's poems. "Charles was crushed, and never forgot that moment of Connie's lack of shared enthusiasm." The older Rumaker concludes that Connie was not so much hurting Olson as she was asserting herself. "Vividly recalling that pain behind Connie's eyes I so often saw, [I] wondered was her careless gesture a healthy one of resistance, a shoot up from her nether-self that spoke of her own need for self recognition, for a clear sense of that individuation Olson was always quoting from Jung, apart from Charles' gargantuan appetite for his own? Done, not so much to hurt Charles, done more perhaps not to hurt herself, to stop hurting herself. Was it the realization of herself and her own abilities, her own threatened containment, being smothered by Charles' overwhelming needs and energy"? (171). It's clear that the older Rumaker thinks that this is the case.
A third encounter occurs late one afternoon when Rumaker meets a well-dressed Olson, suitcase in hand, ready to leave the college campus. Connie has also emerged from their home, and after Olson has signaled to Rumaker to be quiet about the meeting, he and Connie return to their home. Before they notice Rumaker, he sees "that pinched, strained look in Connie's eyes." Seeing Rumaker, Olson "now had a silly expression on his face, like a boy who's been caught in a particularly impish prank" (319). This incident disturbs the young Rumaker, as there have been rumors that the Olsons have been breaking up. "There was that deeper, childish part of me that envisioned the household of Black Mountain imperiled by this marital rift between figurative mother and father" (317). He characterizes his worry as "the concerns of a still-egotistic child, really, whose mother and father may be on the point of breaking up" (318). The young Rumaker has a bit of growing to do.
Sometime later Connie visits Rumaker in considerable distress. Here he describes her condition. "Her fine features appeared drawn, pulled back in subtle tension. In her dark eyes was an intensity of pain I'd never seen in them before. It said she had to get away for awhile - from the house, from Kate, from him - needed a sanctuary however brief, a sense of her being so smothered at that moment it left her no breath to speak" (321-322). For Rumaker, this is the condition of many women in the 1950s, at Black Mountain and beyond, "smothered" by the men around them.
A last encounter gives Connie a qualified triumph in her contest with Olson. The occasion is a Saturday night party in the spring of 1955, what Rumaker characterizes as "a last-gasp try at community." Rumaker notices that "there was a certain vivacity about Connie" and adds that "there seemed a reckless and appealing energy about her that evening" (469). He reminds himself of Connie's usual behavior at such parties: "she didn't cling to [Olson] . . . so much as always to be near him, very much in his presence, mainly because you got the feeling they genuinely enjoyed each other's company and exchange of talk" (470). At this party, however, "she placed herself, drink in hand, by the stairs in the north corner of the lobby . . . standing at a decided distance from Charles" (469). Rumaker concludes that "she was going to have a good time - and obviously was going to have it apart from Charles" (470). Expanding on this, he says "as the evening, and the drinks, wore on, her vivacity and charming talk continued, an almost forced gaiety, it seemed, with, I began to detect, a decided edge of defiance aimed at Charles, perhaps a desperate declaration of independence, a quiet but scintillating rebelliousness to prove that she could talk to and attract others, be appreciated quite apart from himself, that she was capable of doing this on her own . . . . Perhaps she was trying to teach [Olson] the age-old lesson . . . that two could play the cheating game as well as one" (470-471). That this last may be the case - that in 1950s American women needed men in order to assert their independence from other men - qualifies Connie's triumph and illustrates the predicament of women at Black Mountain College. Like the men, in this respect they too are imprisoned.
But the point about Charles Olson is that, for Rumaker, in so many ways, he isn't imprisoned, despite these notions of gender with which he is also involved. In his Rain Taxi interview, Rumaker says he found dealing with Olson his most difficult task. "What took me the longest to write about was my attempt to get down (get to the bottom of) my often thorny and tangled experience with Charles Olson, my mentor and eventual awakener." In the portrait of Olson are embodied both the sense of liberation Rumaker experienced at the college and the conflicts about gender they both experienced.
Rumaker presents Olson as a congruence of opposites, each balanced against another. He is first of all "the Patriarch, Black Mountain his patriarchy" (214). Rumaker remembers the college as a kind of patriarchy, a hierarchy with Olson at the top. One dimension of this is that Olson serves as a second father to many of the male students, "the lost sons who had wandered into Black Mountain." For Rumaker himself, this is particularly true. He initially regards his coming to the college as "my chance to have another father at last, a beloved and loving master to serve and learn from" (32). "I knew instinctively," he says on another occasion, "that Olson was a 'father-spirit,' whether he liked it or not, the seasoned wise man who had much to teach me, and being spirit kin, as the Native Indians know, he was more important to me than my own biological father, who had cast me out" (140). For Rumaker, Olson was the Jungian "Wise Old Man," a concept explained to him by Maria von Franz that "clinched [Rumaker's] further resolve to surrender [himself] to the one who could continue to help [him] on his way" (162). This patriarch and spirit father is many other things.
For instance, Rumaker also stresses Olson's need to be babied. "Charles always had to be the center of care, his own needs gratified first, himself the central babe and at times a far bigger one than his daughter" (323). Occasionally, this characteristic leads to absurdity. Rumaker treats readers to a picture of Olson in class: "We were not permitted to open a window even so much as a crack since huge, rugged-looking Charles had the sensibilities of a newborn infant and could not abide even the slightest draft. Often looking like a potentate, he sat in class with a ragged, out-at-the-elbows gray cashmere sweater balled up on top of his large, balding head, to keep his brains warm, I imagined" (114-115). The patriarch, it seems, needed constant coddling.
As the patriarch, Olson always felt the need to be right, to be more knowledgeable about any topic than anyone else. Rumaker notices "a tremendous need in Charles to always call the shots, to always be on top" (132). This is especially noticeable in his relation to Natasha Goldowski, with whom he battled for control of the college. Rumaker regrets that Goldowski couldn't have stayed at the college "as an alternative," but concludes "that wouldn't have been possible with Charles' need to be kingpin" (193). The wise father could also be a bully.
On the other hand, Rumaker underlines Olson's openness, his generosity of spirit. He reports that "I was beginning to see that Charles was the most open, the most honest of men; you may not have liked it, but you knew where you stood - and most definitely where he stood, always: upfront, nonhypocritical, exactly as he was, virtues, warts and all" (155). This generosity of spirit had its limits. For instance, on the subject of Hart Crane's poetry, Olson was not interested. Crane's poetry was treated "with an air of impatient dismissal" (375). "When Olson's vastly discursive mind closed, it closed with a snap, and better forget it. There were no half measures with Charles, he had his own visions to pursue" (377). But this quality, for Rumaker, "was mitigated in the large openness of his generosity and charm and, . . . in the swagger of his own unquestioned rightness" (300).
Two other of Olson's physical characteristics stand out for Rumaker, given Olson's "patrimonial hugeness" (318). The first is his voice. Rumaker finds himself initially and especially moved by Olson's talk. "It was the personal magnetism and generous warmth, the talk of the man I responded to at first" (295). On two other occasions Rumaker exclaims about Olson's talk. In the classroom "listening to him was like riding a magic carpet anywhere in the imagination or the world" (115). Most importantly for Rumaker, Olson's ability to inspire the writer in him is expressed in terms of "his voice . . . the same as thunder that raises drowned bodies" (154).
Rumaker also sees in Olson a delicacy that is the opposite of his hugeness; Olson "saw himself as a great delicate babe in his huge body" (156). Rumaker watches Olson enjoying a dance program and realizes Olson and the dancer have similar qualities. "Something of her in him, I thought, in that vast size of him, in his own dance of words, despite his coming on as the high-roller, something delicate and pointed and small, quiet that he saw in her - the soul of Connie in him, she, too, like that, and later, the soul of Betty Kaiser" (223).
Another occasion involves Olson himself dancing. Listening to the trumpet of Miles Davis for the first time, Olson dances with student Arlene Franklin. "He dances with her over and over, one cut after another, to the Miles Davis record, hovering several feet over his timidly smiling partner, holding her lightly and at a measurable distance in a big but loose bear-hug, shoulders crouched, moving around, in spite of his size, with surprising deftness and grace, bent over Arlene in a high, loose crouch, shuffling his steps, not terrifically varied in footwork, dancing in a small space, small steps, keeping close to the phonograph, close to the music, his movements as spare and to the point as Davis' horn" (147). Having witnessed this, Rumaker is moved to tell Olson the next day that he danced "like a whale." At the time, Rumaker ended up feeling silly about saying this. Now, he feels "it wasn't a silly or inaccurate thing to say. A whale, certainly, is a graceful and mighty dancer in the waters; Olson himself, in his own soundings, a powerful dancer in spatial seas" (148-149). Here the qualities of hugeness and delicacy combine.
Rumaker speaks at considerable length about Olson's attitude toward women, already illustrated here in his portrait of Olson's wife Connie. He says that "Charles couldn't seem to get beyond seeing most women as anything but sexual and as housemeets for his own convenience and comfort, essentially wives and mothers, especially useful to himself in either capacity, . . . " (169). In discussing Olson's educational conflict with Natasha Goldowski, which Rumaker describes as "an irreconcilable conflict between the old hermeneutic and class-structured, European-based teaching of Natasha, centered on private tutorials; and the wide-ranging, more grubbily democratic, open-arena hurly-burly approach of Olson," Rumaker calls them "in will, defiance and stubbornness, twins" (178). But the fact that Natasha is female complicates this. Listening to Olson talk about her, Rumaker "began to have an inkling for the first time of Olson's attitude toward women (which had troubled me), that lay at the root of his trouble with Natasha, that he saw her not as a person and an equal, but as a woman whose 'spark' was both a powerful lure and a distraction, a glandular beclouding of eyes and mind, a sexual adversary to be conquered, in deep and ancient biological wiring beyond change - conquest over rather than partners in quest, . . ." (182-183). In this attitude toward women, Olson resembled closely the attitudes of the 1950s American culture he personally rejected. As Rumaker says, "at root, in regards to women, he was no more or less different than any other males steeped in the traditions of a culture that put men first" (193).
That culture imagines males and females alien. This understanding of the nature of women results in a notion of the nature of men that excludes the female. According to Rumaker, "Maleness, however hidden the homoeroticism, walked the hills of Black Mountain ('Bill Williams is wrong about the female principle being the thrust of the universe,' Olson once said emphatically), just as it dominated in the society beyond the gates" (443). The patriarchy exists both within and without the college, and it is oppressive in both places.
Rumaker himself concludes by resisting the notion of Olson as patriarch, as father, and the understanding of maleness that accompanies it. Right away, Rumaker recognizes another side to Olson. On his first visit to the campus, he describes Olson as someone who "in spite of his bluff voice and gigantic physical size, which dominated every presence he was in, had, I immediately perceived, a delicate, somewhat 'womanly,' and for that reason, very appealing sensitivity" (30). Olson himself isn't very much at home with this sensitivity, Rumaker notices. In class, Olson mimics Hart Crane's "bathetic and self-pitying tears" shed over Slater Brown. Rumaker ponders this, saying, "I decided Charles' little spontaneous mimicry, with its suggestion of scornful homophobia, was just another of his erroneous tangents that concealed rather than revealed his true feelings about Crane's and Brown's relationship - and perhaps a few uneasy fears of his own, given his powerful androgynous nature" (375). Later, Rumaker speaks of Olson's "shamanistic androgyny" (443).
And Rumaker finds that "at Black Mountain, unlike elsewhere in the USA at that time, the androgynous spirit of the male artist, touched as it was with the masculinist assumptions we all grew up inculcated with, was at least open to the possibility of that experience [of female power in art], as it rarely was anywhere else" (444). This spirit in Olson is what connects Rumaker to him. As he says, "I loved Charles for his shifting sensibilities, the unpredictable androgyny in him, the flashes of tenderness and strength, of swift and brilliant illuminations, the Jungian male and female conjoined - more that than the 'father' in him" (153). Olson, he concludes, "freed me into the world, a second spiritual 'mother' and, in time, a second and most important spiritual 'father'" (154).
Freedom, and the lack of freedom, is an essential part of the autobiographical dimension of Black Mountain Days. If being at the college frees Rumaker in many ways, only later does he discover the nature of his imprisonment. Late in the book Rumaker sets out the reasons some came to study at the college in the 1950s. "So often people seemed to come to Black Mountain actually looking for something other than their stated, conscious purpose. They would come down saying, I want to paint, or, I want to write; when in reality the urge was to escape from a tyrannical or abusive household or an equally tyrannical and boring school situation . . . , or a town or city neighborhood they felt alien in . . . ; or, maybe strongest of all, unnamable hungers drove us all, in some measure, south, urged on by vague rumors that at Black Mountain we would find a place to be free and be as we needed to be, to find out what we needed" (470). Rumaker himself is one who comes for both "stated" and "unnamable" purposes.
The college was ready to help Rumaker primarily with the former. As Rumaker goes on to say, "Black Mountain wasn't equipped to deal with our various neuroses, personality quirks, or even the psychoses of some of the students who were beginning to show up, so many of us damaged refugees from families, homes, and, later, mental hospitals and the growing drug world out there. What it offered was a space to work in the field you chose and a faculty with considerable experience in that field; to learn our craft in a dynamic and interdependent relatedness to all other fields" (461). Nevertheless, the young Rumaker himself is needy on both fronts. As he says, "I came, essentially, because I wanted to learn to write, but I think beneath was also an urgent prompting from my unconscious to go seek the release it needed, to find a place where my unruly erotic impulses could be set free in an atmosphere of relative unrestrictedness and, most important, safety" (460). More simply, as he puts it at the very beginning of the book in expressing his hopes, "maybe here I could finally learn to write, maybe here I could find a place to be" (31). Rumaker does "finally learn to write," and he does find at Black Mountain "a place to be," but he also encounters difficulties he cannot overcome at the college in both these areas. He becomes a published writer at the college, but he eventually finds he lacks the language to say what he needs to say. He finds space at the college to work out a gay identity, but the culture cannot help him respect himself as a gay person.
Initially, Rumaker treats his development as a writer at the college humorously. He remembers how ungainly in physical appearance he was, "a very skinny 6' 2," weighing in at less than 125 pounds" (52). He imagines himself as the youngest son in a folk tale or "like a creature in myth, who stumbles awkwardly and infantilely along to the jeers of everyone, from father, mother, one's other blood kin, from many other doubters one encounters on the way, while others his age have moved on, . . . there is always a deep unconscious sense of his time coming, of a wordlessly powerful sense of spirit kinship with other unseen fields of energy despite his own as yet meager and undeveloped abilities . . . the old myth of the Yet Unseen who, through such trials, is tempered, is made ready, is, finally, in all readiness, for when his time has come to do what he must do" (155-156).
He does learn to write, but this learning takes a long time. There is humor in Rumaker's recollections of his early efforts at the college. "As rumors spread about my awful writing, [Jorge Fick] used to secretly leave copies of paperback novels by Edna Best and Kathleen Norris, . . . writers of popular sentimental romances, . . . [he] would leave such paperbacks on the writing desk in my study as a sneaky and sneering evaluation of my work" (118). When Rumaker reads his story "The Truck" to Olson's writing class and Olson calls it his "breakthrough," Rumaker notes especially "the agog look on Jorge Fick's face, like he'd seen a miracle (which I expect to everyone else, after so long a time, including me, it truly was)" (365).
Before this breakthrough, Rumaker has resolved to "be patient, give it my best shot, and keep my ears open and my mouth shut." He absorbs lessons about writing from others as well as Olson, learning to trust the evidence of his own eyes (446) and that "the lie of the imagination is the only reality" (304). Though he learns from everyone around him (Stefan Wolpe and Robert Creeley among his other teachers), Charles Olson was his most important teacher. It's not until he reads Robert Creeley's letter accepting the story "The Truck" for the Black Mountain Review that he's finally able to say "I had finally begun, I had finally written a story" (374). The very last words of the book acknowledge Charles Olson's continuing presence as a writing master in Rumaker's life. "I, still, the perennial apprentice - he, even on top, down there [in the underworld]. He will always be" (542).
But "The Truck" was just a beginning; as Rumaker says, "in spite of Charles' mighty influence, I knew I had my own instructions" (155). Quite frequently, throughout his memoir, Rumaker refers to the fact that he "had no words" to express himself about one subject or another. For instance, he initially has trouble using his own experience as a basis for his writing "for a variety of reasons: fear of exposure, of plunging into the imagination, the main ones; fear of facing not only the world but myself, another" (151-152). Attacked by Olson, "I had no words to defend myself." But he's confident that the right words are somewhere inside him. "On the surface, for survival, I feigned a loyalty and obedience that was not there, deeper down, where was rooted a tongue in a collective voice that had been silenced for centuries, but that would begin to speak aloud in years to come" (153). Speaking of Olson's relation to women, he is more specific about his own voice, calling it "my own rudimentary and inchoate sense of a stirring that had no language yet, just as then, too, songs of celebratory queerness were a long way off in the learning and the making" (185). This voice, in the 1950s, had as yet no words. And by the end of the memoir the absence of a language is even more frustrating to the young Rumaker, who finally attempts suicide. Listening to Robert Creeley's babble in the wake of an automobile accident on the college campus, Rumaker thinks of "my own buried dreads and forcibly stopped-up heart and silenced mouth" (503). Seeking an understanding of his own suicide attempt, and trapped in the myths about homosexuality current in 1950s America, he first wonders "what words did I have, anyway? In those days, there were no words. And yet, and yet . . . despite all those twisted words I'd ever heard or read about, there persisted that dumb, bare whisper of doubt heard or read about that all those words were lies. . ." (514). This lack of words leads him to despair. As a gay man "I had a tremendous need to speak out of this vacuum and be heard, but had no words, I, the apprentice writer, mute, even on paper, effectively silenced now in my voice about this central fact in my life and all that impacted on it" (517-518). Having learned to write at Black Mountain College, he still lacks a language for what he most needs to say.
Much the same thing happens as he seeks in Black Mountain College a place "to be." "Perhaps I had found a safe place," he hopes, "for my own queer self" (30). Being at Black Mountain College was, for Rumaker, a liberating experience. He speaks of the college as "a truly freeing experience" from his religious background (226). He refers to it as "that haven" from race prejudice and religious conservatism (257). Most importantly, Black Mountain College allowed him "to behave and be let be who I was (or to come out as much as that time and space permitted, which at Black Mountain, compared to outside homophobic USA, was considerable). That space was mostly sensual freedom, wherever the opportunity and without repercussion, plus the ability to live openly with another male, as I did with Merrill Gillespie, without censure or hassles" (296).
But this last freedom is much more restricted than the first two, by attitudes from the larger American culture, from the college community, and from Rumaker himself. Rumaker speaks of a "deeply entrenched American homophobia no stranger at otherwise forward-looking Black Mountain College" (433). In this respect the college resembles the outside world, is no "haven." This homophobic attitude Rumaker characterizes as "a hardy infection carried in from the world outside" (492).
Not only does his mentor Olson carry this infection, but the young Rumaker is himself infected. He characterizes attitudes toward gay people in the 1950s as "stereotypical nonsense . . . about faggots and dykes then, a fantastic people as bizarrely imagined as creatures from outer space, often even by gay people themselves" (512). In describing himself as he was in the 1950s, Rumaker underlines what he finally calls his "tremendous immaturity" (511) and presents himself as a long way at the time from adult self-knowledge. Though it's clear that "the self who up to then had been eluding me" is Rumaker's writing self, Rumaker is even more importantly looking for identity as a queer person. He repeats several times his sense of his own distance from himself as a youth. At one point he refers to "my own unbalanced, distracted eyes" (93). On another occasion he focuses on his sexuality as the central problem, referring to "my own hungry and ignorant queer self" (376).
Other characterizations of the young Rumaker emphasize his alienation from this queer self. Early in the book, he says that at the time "fear, often unadmitted, ran my life" (137). At another point, he portrays himself as being "in habitual denial about most everything most of my life up to then" (261). As a result, he wears a poker face in public, "a perfect mask," "a queer guy concealed behind my unemotional public face" (331, 268). The metaphor he finally uses is the same one he uses to describe the college's homophobia: he speaks of himself as "infected with my own misconceptions" (436). Actually, as he now understands, "my life was illegal" (510).
Rumaker's various love affairs at the college dramatize his continuing confusion about his sexuality and his increasing frustration and despair. He focuses most extensively on the first of these, his affair with fellow student Merrill Gillespie. Initially, this is a source of great happiness and illustrates the comparative freedom of life at Black Mountain College: "the ability to live openly with another male . . . without censure or hassles" (296). As he begins this affair, he feels "a happiness I hadn't known before," and finds himself "gazing around [their apartment] with a feeling of contentment, a cozy, homey scene" (102). "Sometimes in those early days of being together, we talked till the windows brightened with dawn, telling each other our stories, another act of love" (105). "I was never so happy," he concludes (107).
This idyllic situation does not last. Merrill Gillespie has another boyfriend - absent during the initial phase of his affair with Rumaker - whom he prefers. Looking back on his youth, Rumaker offers this understanding of his condition then, remembering how he hoped he could make Merrill love him as much as he did his other boyfriend: "such were the green hopes of a queer youth enmeshed in suffering an adolescent crush on another male for the first time" (216). Another episode allows Rumaker to generalize again about the affair. Gillespie is attracted by a young man visiting from another college, who he sees talking with Rumaker, and asks him to proposition him on Gillespie's behalf, saying to Rumaker "if you really loved me, you'd do it." Rumaker's reaction to this then, "such was my insanity, . . . for a fleeting instant I considered the possibility of doing it. But then quickly came to my senses, pulled back." "What contempt he must have for me," he concludes (256). Then Rumaker offers his reflection on these events. "I couldn't see then that we were a perfect sado-masochistic match, feeding each other's darkly rooted needs. Very often, we do get the 'love' we're ready for, and deserve. Looking back, seeing where I was then (and would be for years to come), I know I certainly did" (257).
Two other of Rumaker's affairs at the college are treated more briefly and underline his increasing sense of frustration. Pondering the fact that his and John Wieners' "attractions for each other bypassed the carnal," Rumaker describes himself then as someone who "sought out only those men alien to me, all I couldn't stomach in myself, my father, the first man I ever wanted to love and to love me, still stuck in my craw" (436). Rumaker describes his affair with Jake as "being used by him, of allowing myself to be so used" (466). He describes Jake's behavior in one sexual encounter "as if in participating as little as possible, he couldn't be held accountable, had been taken over, led to it, and that didn't make him guilty of that, or guilty at all. I was the true 'queer'; the biblical 'sodomite' of his ancient desert fathers, who were terrified of diminishment, or squandering seed" (467).
Even less satisfying is Rumaker's unsuccessful attempt at an affair with Richard, which he calls "my not so circumspect wooing of him." While Richard remains beyond his grasp, Rumaker finds him "fairly understanding, even sympathetic, patient (or so I wanted eagerly to believe) - which only served to increase my expectations all the more and fed my hope that he would eventually have some feeling for me" (512), despite "his heavy masculinist attitudes" (509). This, however, never happens.
It isn't just his sex life, or lack of it, that is bothering Rumaker. The college itself was in an impossible situation financially. "I felt the decline of the school like a decline in myself. At that point I wanted only to graduate and get away. I knew that what the best of Black Mountain had been for me was now behind me. And yet I was frightened of leaving" (509). Trapped, Rumaker attempts suicide. He recalls his condition then. "I could see later that, unconsciously, I had put myself up on a cross, had driven in my own spikes, had made myself the crucified, had become my own crucifier, had done this, not for the first time with Richard, but many times before." He sees his time at Black Mountain as "a process to connect up with the starveling other self, a journey Charles [Olson} and other males were certainly also on" (517). In some important ways, for Rumaker that "other self" was still a starveling, and he has a long way to go.
The way for Rumaker to go at the end of Black Mountain Days was not clear. Nevertheless, he had, in the college, found a place where he could begin to learn to write and where he could begin to be who he was, and the book is primarily a celebration of that experience. Late in the book, he gets the college's strengths and his own predicament into a single paragraph: "It's easier now, and in hindsight, finding words for. . . the discomfort in sensing that things weren't quite right in me or around me and this in spite of the activity and energy, in the midst of a real and tiring struggle for survival of the school, of the genuinely exciting work that was being done, despite that daily struggle. Still, the feedback of negativity was there, as it was everywhere outside, even infiltrating Black Mountain College" (493). He goes on to assert that "the uglinesses and violences, even the sillinesses of the time were in no way equal to or ever overshadowed the accomplishments in the work done at Black Mountain in those years, in the ideas and enthusiasm and camaraderie that were exchanged on a daily basis" (495). And he concludes that his experience at the college was "the most meaningful and exciting [experience] I had ever known and will probably ever know" (510). Black Mountain Days manages both a celebration of a time and place of great creativity and an autobiographical narrative that outlines and underlines, in its depiction of Rumaker's personal struggles as a gay man, the repressive roles afforded both women and men in the USA of the 1950s.
NOTE: Of the reviews of Black Mountain Days, I have seen the following: Raphael Allison in Rain Taxi 9:2, Summer 2004; Jeffery Beam in The Independent Weekly, October 15, 2003; William Corbett in The Boston Phoenix, May 21, 2004; Deanna Kreisel in The Charlotte Observer, November 14, 2003; Robert McDonald in Lambda Book Report 19: August/September 2004; Rob Neufeld in Asheville Citizen-Times August 30, 2003; Tom Patterson in Winston-Salem Journal October 19, 2003; and Victoria Sutherland in Foreward This Week June 11, 2003. In addition, Michael Rumaker provided me with letters and e-mails responding to the book from Peter Anastas, Russell Banks, Charles Boer, John DeWind, Mary Emma Harris, reviews on Amazon.com, Patrick Rumaker, and Jonathan Williams. My interview with Michael Rumaker is in Rain Taxi Review of Books Spring 2009 Online Edition Part One (www.raintaxi.com ).
Leverett T. Smith, Jr. is the author of Eroticizing the Nation: Michael Rumakerís Fiction (1999) and other essays and reviews of writers associated with Black Mountain College . He is curator of the Black Mountain College Collection at North Carolina Wesleyan College .