“A Jewish Christmas in Santa Monica”: That was going to be my title for this “Diary,” but things have been slowed up, and I won’t arrive in California until New Year’s Day. For one thing, I had to give a talk in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. So this will be a kind of travel diary: Washington to Boston to Los Angeles.
But there is beautiful tradition behind that title. Not many people know that “White Christmas” is about Los Angeles–really. As written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn in 1942, the tune began with a verse that Bing Crosby doesn’t sing, though Ronnie Spector does recite it on my family’s favorite Christmas music, The Phil Spector Christmas Album:
The sun is shining,
The grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
I’ve never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills, LA.
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up North.
OK–so this is not the greatest writing of Irving Berlin’s career. But the words sound great when Ronnie speaks them, very expressively, with the Ronettes doo-wahing and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound in the background.
We have fired that album up annually for maybe 20 years now, while decorating the tree. Readers of this “Diary” should not conclude that I have turned my back on the ways of my forefathers. On the contrary, you would have to call me a third or fourth generation Diasporist, to use Philip Roth’s term: My grandfather Dave Pinsky always had a Christmas tree as big as the Ritz. He and his third wife, Della, fed his five children and us grandchildren Christmas dinner, with plenty of presents under the tree. Grandpa Dave, as I have written more than once, was a former bootlegger and prizefighter well known in my home town of Long Branch, N.J. When I knew him, in the days of those immense Christmas trees, he ran a bar called the Broadway Tavern, where Della had been the barmaid.
Strangely enough, Dave Pinsky’s name came up at the Modern Language Association convention in Washington, where I gave my talk yesterday. Every year at this time, newspaper and magazine editors send reporters to do stories about the MLA and the crazy, pedantic goings-on at the national convention, always scheduled between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The reporter digs up absurd talks about Emily Dickinson’s penis envy, hermeneutic enigmas in the early works of Madonna, or whatever. These annual stories reassure the American reader that the antics of highbrow professors are not more interesting than those of professional wrestlers or the American Gladiators. The convention is portrayed as a ridiculous, unusual blend of silliness and pomposity, a kind of circus for stuffed shirts. There may even be some truth in this cliché.
But the current president of the MLA is my old friend from Berkeley days Sandra Gilbert, a poet as well as co-author of The Madwoman in the Attic, a landmark work of feminist scholarship. Sandra invited several poets to talk on a panel with the cunningly phrased title, “What Was the Future? What Will the Past Be?”–a successfully jazzy way, I think, to ask us to reflect on what we thought–starting out–poetry and letters would become, and what we think their role will be in the next century.
I wandered around the Washington Sheraton, a hotel the size of Rhode Island, expecting to see someone I knew among the crowds of lit profs drinking and gabbling in every acre of bar and lobby. These people didn’t know me. They all seemed very young, a trend I have been noticing in more and more contexts for a few years now. Until I found fellow panelists Eavan Boland and Gary Snyder, I drifted aimlessly, the Spirit of Professional Meetings Past.
The talks went just fine, but the great thrill was at dinner afterward, where the unlikely spirit of Dave Pinsky was invoked. The number of circular tables in the hotel dining room, the place cards and the quantity of forks at each place, all suggested the kind of affair that was always getting ruffled by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. But this one was more like an ethnic wedding.
The group at our table included Sandra, her collaborator Susan Gubar, and her son Roger, who has gone into the family business by becoming a professor of English at Cornell. The two poet-speakers were Gary Snyder and me. Also at the table were Sandra’s gentleman friend David Gale, a mathematician, and Sandra’s 93-year-old Sicilian mother, Angela Mortola, who lives by herself in Queens and is–no allowances made or required–a lot of fun.
To Sandra’s right was M.H. Abrams, one of the great scholar-critics of the century. Abrams was Sandra’s professor at Cornell, where, as a very active emeritus, he is also her son Roger’s colleague. Silver-haired, urbane, learned, and unaffected, known as “Mike” to all his friends except Sandra, who cannot bring herself to address her revered professor with that nickname, Meyer Abrams toasted his old student, using her Italian maiden name–“Little Sandra Mortola.”
And Mike Abrams also happens to be from Long Branch, N.J. In the little row of Jewish shops on Long Branch’s Broadway, not far from Dave Pinsky’s bar, his parents had the hardware store. (The parents of the movie star Jeff Chandler–then Ira Grossel–were in the grocery business, and Norman Mailer’s aunt ran a dress shop.) Mike remembers my grandfather as a noted local character and tough guy; he recalls the Broadway Tavern and the prizefighting legend well. So Gary discusses my grandfather and his type with Roger Gilbert, who–with his mother’s collaborator, Susan–is fussing over his Sicilian grandmother. Roger also reminisces with me about his father Elliot’s prodigious memory for Jewish jokes. The laughter and overlap of Sicilian and Jewish cultures remind me of Long Branch and my grandfather. The day, it turns out, is also Madame President’s birthday; so, after Mike’s toast, the roomful of scholars and poets sing the customary little song, an unlikely, down-home climax for my MLA.