In the exquisite title story, seventy-six-year-old Virginia Tyler will finally marry the love of her life—as soon as she finds the courage to leave her husband of almost fifty years. In “The Apple of Discord,” a Hudson Valley farmer, heartsick that none of his three daughters or their husbands wants to keep the family orchard, commits an act of desperation.“Vissi d’Arte” is the poignant story of a husband whose belief that his wife is destined to become a world-famous painter borders on the delirious. In “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” an aging writer realizes that the young reporter sent from the big-city newspaper to interview him is gathering material for his obituary. The lies he tells her are a delicious act of defiance.
By turns tender, funny, and sad, September Song is William Humphrey at his most eloquent and empathetic.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Humphrey including rare photos form the author’s estate.
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About the Author
A longtime professor of English and writing at Bard College and other schools, Humphrey was the recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters.
William Humphrey (1924–1997) was born in Clarksville, Texas. Neither of his parents went to school beyond the fifth grade, and during the height of the Great Depression his father hunted in the snake-infested swamplands of the Sulphur River to help feed the family. Humphrey left Clarksville at age thirteen and did not return for thirty-two years. By then he was the internationally acclaimed author of two extraordinary novels set in his hometown: Home from the Hill, a National Book Award finalist that became an MGM film starring Robert Mitchum, and its follow-up, The Ordways, which the New York Times called “exhilaratingly successful.” Eleven highly praised works of fiction and nonfiction followed, including Farther Off from Heaven, a memoir about Humphrey’s East Texas boyhood and his father’s tragic death in an automobile accident; The Spawning Run and My Moby Dick, two delightful accounts of the joys and travails of fly fishing; and No Resting Place, a novel about the forced removal of the Cherokee nation along the Trail of Tears.
A longtime professor of English and writing at Bard College and other schools, Humphrey was the recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters.
Read an Excerpt
By William Humphrey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 William Humphrey
All rights reserved.
A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
Was it just that, being young, new to her job, and an aspiring writer herself, she was in awe of an old one who had recently published, to some little long-overdue acclaim, his twelfth book? Was that what made her ill-at-ease? She had driven all the way up from the city to interview him, they had had drinks, lunch, and she had yet to ask him a question. It was as though he were interviewing her.
Not that there was much to tell about himself. Most of his 64 years had been spent at a desk, much of that time staring at a blank sheet of paper. How many writers' lives were colorful? Villon. Byron. Rimbaud. Poets. They left wide margins. The novelist, said Auden, must become the whole of boredom. Asked why he did not write an autobiography, Thomas Hardy replied that he was not much interested in himself. As for him, he had never bothered answering inquiries from Who's Who. List the titles of his books, and his tale was told.
But he was prepared now to help his reluctant young interviewer with the information that he was born in Sulphur Flats, Texas, in 1924. Had attended the local schools until his father's death in 1937 when his mother and he moved to Dallas. There he finished public school and then enrolled on a scholarship at Southern Methodist University. In 1945 he came to New York where he met and married his wife. Published his first story in 1949, his first book in—
Then he knew what this reporter was here for and why she was hesitant at her assignment. His twelve books had earned him an obituary in her newspaper—on a back page, of course—and his age made it urgent to get the facts on file. Here was Death in the guise of a young woman.
The little black box with its tape cassette used by today's Recording Angel posed a challenge. His wife listened in blank-faced amazement as he began the story of his life with:
"My mother having died in giving birth to me, her only child, I was brought up by a black mammy. Do not picture a Dilsey or an Aunt Jemima. Mammy was just fifteen years older than I. My bereaved father had to have a wet-nurse for his motherless child and Mammy's pappy, a Holy-Roller minister, had kicked her out of the house when she showed signs of becoming a single parent. I never knew Mammy's pappy but he had a decisive influence on me. It is to her resentment of his treatment of her that I owe my having been brought up in a godless household, for which I have always thanked whatever powers there be. As I required constant attention, she moved in with us. Of course she went in and out the back door, and it goes without saying that she 'mistered' my father, still, her living in the house with a single man, and with her tarnished reputation, must have raised eyebrows in our little old southern town. But whatever gossip it may have caused was not repeated to my father's face because of his well-known prowess with a gun, about which more later. It did mean that I grew up sheltered. We never had company in the house. It was perhaps the beginning of my lifelong sense of alienation.
"At one flowing breast Mammy nursed me and at the other her Josh. So, although he and I later went our separate ways, we started life side by side. Until I was six years old and my education began, I thought Mammy was my mother. All reminders of my own had been removed from sight so as to prevent any questions and spare me the knowledge of my congenital parricide. I could see of course that there was a disparity in color between Josh and me but I thought he was Mammy's black boy and I her white one. Because he resembled her more than I did, I deferred to him and he took advantage of that to lord it over me.
"My first day of school was a turning point in my life. My being taken to one and Josh to another opened my eyes to the difference between us. My teachers were scandalized by my dialect and asked where I had learned to talk like that. If you think I've got an accent now you ought to have heard me recite my bedtime prayers, taught to me by Mammy not out of piety but out of superstition: 'Now Ah lays me down to sleep / Prays de Lawd mah soul to keep.' My teachers made me feel peculiar, which is to say inferior, and that made me question my upbringing. My life had not been so secluded that I had never seen white mothers but I had never seen them in such numbers as came to fetch their children when school let out that day—and waiting for me was Mammy. My white hand and her black one holding it as she led me home had never looked so mismatched.
"'Mammy,' said I in a flash of divination over my Graham crackers and milk, 'you're not my mother.'
"'Nevah said I wuz!' she rejoined indignantly.
"Wouldn't have you as a gift, was my reading of that.
"Remember the sad old song 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' Well, just imagine what it's like to lose in one moment both of yours. It may have been then and there that my métier was decided for me. You've heard no doubt of that modern literary theme 'The Quest for the Father.' Mine was for the mother. 'The Anna Fisher Obsession' it's called. I couldn't look at a white woman of child-bearing age without wondering whether ... And wondering what I had done to make her disown me.
"Mammy knew the truth kept from me about my unfortunate origin, but she knew better than to tell white folks what they did not want to hear about themselves. Only one person could clue me in my search.
"So that I might look upon myself as an accident rather than as a born criminal worthy of hounding by the Furies, it was necessary that I be precociously initiated into the facts of life.
"'So you see, son,' said my father in concluding his anatomy lesson, 'it was not your fault.' But his look of profound pity for me was like the mark of Cain upon my brow.
"Top that up for you, Miss?
"Separate but equal, we called our segregated school system. Everybody now knows that was a sham. I learned it earlier than most. My teachers were old maids—forbidden by law to marry. This left them free to turn all their attentions upon their pupils. Their attentions, I say, not their affections. For the next seven years I was sent home each afternoon staggering under the load of my homework. One hundred complex compound sentences to diagram. One hundred problems of long division to solve. My studies stunted my growth. I blame many of my afflictions and my disappointments in life on my unathletic childhood. Meanwhile Josh was out on his skates or his scooter or my bicycle. If you think he spared me the contrast between his freedom and my bondage, then you don't know kids, black or white. Imagine if you can what it was like to be a little overworked, motherless, guilt-ridden boy trying to memorize the poem assigned to him to be recited at morning assembly while a handball was being bounced against the side of the wood frame house."
"I'm going to need another tape," said the reporter.
You're going to need more than one, young lady, he said to himself. For inspiration—or desperation—or were they one and the same?—was upon him. "Is it not the sound the great wings make as Death swoops past that moves the soul to art?" Who wrote that? He did. And he was young then. He poured himself another drink. The reporter covered her glass with her hand.
"To say that my killing my mother as my first act in life benefited me in any way may sound callous, but surely it spared me the pangs of the Oedipus complex, and in my case that was to be the one ray of light. 'Oedipus complex?' a friend of mine whose mother was unattractive once said to me. 'I just took a second look.' Well, I never got a first look. Not so much as a snapshot. I was not jealous of my father. On the contrary, once aware of my awful guilt I felt beholden to him for having deprived him of his young and fertile wife. He might tell me it was not my fault, but I blamed myself all the same. It was just like me to come into the world ass-first and right-side-up instead of head-first and upside-down like every normal person. And though the dear man never gave me any reason to feel that he resented me, I felt myself to be a constant reminder to him of his loss and loneliness. He was obliged to support and to cherish the very agent of his bereavement. I was his albatross. He never remarried, and I blamed myself for that too. I made him undesirable as a husband. I bore him no ill will. Before the bar of eternal justice I can truthfully swear that I did not intend to kill my father.
"Freshen that for you, young lady? Sure? Well, I'm not driving.
"Ad Tupperwine: that is a name that may not be familiar to you. No. Sic transit gloria mundi. Ad Tupperwine was to the semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle what Rubenstein was to the keyboard, Babe Ruth to the bat. The greatest trick-shot artist of them all. Though in fairness to myself I must say he never took the risks I took.
"No, Ad Tupperwine is not remembered as is Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley, but he was of that ilk. He toured the country with his road show generating publicity and sales for one of the arms manufacturers. After his visit to some cowtown the hardware store sold out of guns and ammunition. It was his visit to Sulphur Flats that prompted my father to take to the road in emulation of Ad Tupperwine when his business failed.
"I was emancipated from school. Until then I had been like a chick trying to peck its way out of its shell. On our tour we never stayed in one spot long enough for the local authorities to seize me and send me back to my textbooks. I was saddened to say goodbye to Mammy but glad to see the last of Josh. While I was slaving away at compulsory education he was a junior high school dropout and his color freed him from the attentions of the truant officer. How he did swagger in his liberty and idleness! He had become a bully and, I regret to say, a bigot. Mind you, I blame his prejudice on environment, not heredity, for a more tolerant person than his mother could not be found. He and I were raised as equals. When she weaned me she shut off Josh's tap too. If in fact she showed any partiality it was toward me because, knowing I had no claim on her maternity, I never sassed her.
"At first I was only my father's assistant. Like the organ-grinder's monkey. I tossed the glass balls into the air, he burst them. I set up the plaques on which, in bulletholes, he drew the cartoon characters, the kitchen matches he lighted with a shot and the candles he snuffed shooting backwards over his shoulder using a mirror, the nails he drove all the way into the board. I passed the hat after the show was over. Even as nothing more than his helper I was the starry-eyed envy of every boy in our audience.
"But, disappointed by the size of the crowds we drew and in our gate receipts, my father had an inspiration. I went into training.
"I thought I had worked hard in school. No little musical prodigy deprived of a normal childhood by practicing his instrument from dawn to dusk ever applied himself more diligently than I did to that .22 rifle. We were now a father-and-son act. A comparison with the Mozarts, père et fils, or with the elder Picasso's giving his son his paintbrushes would not be amiss.
"The times were bad and getting worse by the day. Those were the Depression years and our territory was the Dust Bowl. We played to thin crowds and they were composed of dirt farmers, small-town tradesmen. We couldn't charge admission because we performed in cow pastures. Sometimes when I passed the hat afterwards we took in barely enough to pay for our ammunition.
"Now there was never any doubt that I was the star attraction of our show. Not because I was a better shot than my father but because I was a prodigy. Although I was fourteen, owing to my stunted development I passed for eleven. I was the boy wonder of the trick-shot circuit. So in looking for a way to improve our attendance it was natural that my father think of featuring me more prominently. To train for this we wintered down on the Rio Grande where the climate permitted me to practice nonstop. For I had to become not just a better shot than I already was—I had to become a perfect shot, no allowance for a miss. You will understand why when I tell you in a minute how I was billed.
"By spring I must have fired a hundred thousand rounds. I attribute my present hardness of hearing to all that persistent shooting. Sounded like an agitated woodpecker at work on my eardrums. We headed north. We went on as before drawing the bullethole pictures, striking matches, snuffing the candles, bursting the balls in the air, but the grand finale featured me as William Tell, Jr.
"Take it from one who knows, Miss, the biggest apple in the world looks mighty small when it's sitting on your father's head and you're drawing a bead on it from fifty feet away. Father had the utmost confidence in me and that bolstered my self-confidence, still—
"I can tell by your look of expectancy and dread that you have anticipated my dénouement. Yes, alas, we tempted fate once too often. It caught up with us on a hot day in a hayfield outside Wichita Falls. After the fatal shot I got to him just in time to hear my father say, 'Son, it was not your fault.'
"My career as a trick-shot artist in shambles and I a self-made orphan twice over, hounded by guilt and remorse I joined the ranks of the homeless and became a drifter, fleeing from my memories yet compelled to tell my story to any and all who would listen. My wanderings were as driven and as aimless as those of eyeless old Oedipus only unlike him I was unattended by two devoted daughters. I was a teenage outcast. The account of my attempts to start life anew—well, you've got a deadline to meet. Let two stand for the lot. I got to be a good enough pool shark to take in the small-town players, fill my pockets with cash, get cocky, challenge the hustlers, and lose. My hopes of becoming the next Benny Goodman and forming a jazz band were disappointed when, after six months' dedication to the instrument, I was forced to acknowledge that I was not progressing because for me one note was one beat and one beat one note.
"And so, having failed at everything else I had tried my hand at, I took up writing.
"If I thought I had worked hard in school and at trick-shooting—!"
"Do you think," asked his wife when the reporter had departed, "that young woman believed a word of that rigamarole?"
"I thought I made it quite convincing. I was breaking my heart."
"You've had a sad enough life. You've told me about your poverty-stricken childhood. You've described to me with tears in your eyes watching your poor father die from his injuries in that automobile accident. You've told me about how they put your mother on roller skates so she could fill the mail orders faster at the Sears, Roebuck warehouse in Dallas, struggling to support the two of you on eleven dollars a week's pay. What satisfaction do you get out of making up for yourself an even worse life than the one you've had?"
"Makes mine more tolerable. And as long as I can make up one I'm still here."
"But what are you going to say to people who know you when that yarn appears in print?"
"I won't be here." And he then explained to her what the reporter's assignment was. "In the trade they're called 'ghouls' or 'buzzards.' She was here to gather material for what they call an 'advance obituary.' Somebody's got to do it, but it is dirty work. What I didn't tell her was my last words."
"Oh, you've got them ready, have you?"
"What are they?"
"They're the last words of a writer: 'In that case, I've got nothing more to say.'"CHAPTER 2
The Farmer's Daughter
There was nobody traveling on the road nor working in the fields alongside to see the man fall off the telephone pole, for the day was the Fourth of July and the farmfolks had all gone into town for the celebrations. He had been replacing broken insulators on which boys liked to practice their marksmanship. He had just loosened his safety belt to descend. He fell without a cry, for he was already unconscious, having worked on to finish this job without going down to retrieve his fallen hat, something anybody should have known better than to do in the blaze of a Texas midsummer day, and had had a sunstroke. When he hit the ground he seemed to explode, the powdery dust bursting about him in a puff. He fell on his right leg, which broke with a crunch like a soda cracker. The climbing spur on his twisted foot, ripping through his trousers, tore the calf of his other leg. His head struck the base of the pole hard enough to make the crossarm quiver.
In a last convulsive movement before falling the man had clutched the wire. It broke where he had spliced it, the loose ends snapping back toward the adjacent poles fifty yards away on both sides. The birds perched upon the wire bounced into the air on the wave of the shock, twittering at the disturbance. As the vibration ceased and the ends of the wire dangled motionless, they flew back and alighted again. The disconnected pole stood like a cross above the prostrate figure.
The young man lay face up in the glare of the sun, yet he did not sweat. On the contrary, the sweat bathing his face when he fell, that icy eruption which comes, in sunstroke, as all the lights and darks are reversed and the world becomes a photographic negative, just before the loss of consciousness, had quickly dried, and his face, streaked with dirt, was now unnaturally cool-looking. His leg skewed in an inconceivable direction. His palms, black with creosote from the pole, were turned upwards as though in supplication. His breathing was so shallow his chest barely rose.
Excerpted from September Song by William Humphrey. Copyright © 1992 William Humphrey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
- The Farmer’s Daughter
- A Labor of Love
- The Apple of Discord
- A Weekend in the Country
- September Song
- Mortal Enemies
- The Dead Languages
- The Parishioner
- Last Words
- An Eye for an Eye
- A Tomb for the Living
- Buck Fever
- Ties of Blood
- Vissi d’Arte
- Virgin and Child
- Dead Weight
- Be It Ever So Humble
- A Heart in Hiding
- A Biography of William Humphrey
- Copyright Page