INTRODUCTION BY JULIET LAPIDOS
The American writer Frederick Langley was born in 1938. He released his debut story collection, Brutality and Delicacy, in 1960. He published two more collections shortly thereafter: Alone at Green Beach, in 1962, and Omega, in 1964. Critics celebrated his efficient, seemingly effortless prose and the general public appreciated his fast-paced, often humorous plots.
Then, abruptly, Langley stopped publishing. At first, his silence was a frequent topic of conversation in literary circles. Some speculated that he was simply taking his time with a longer project, others that he’d acquired a devastating case of writer’s block. Over time, however, the establishment moved on. When Langley died in a car accident, in 1981, few obituaries bothered to note the cliff-like decline of his productivity.
But Langleyites, as we call ourselves, never ceased to wonder why he went quiet. Now, for the first time, we have a clue in the form of a recently discovered notebook that he kept during the last years of his life. Langley began the notebook in 1978, after moving into the attic above his brother Thomas’s home in Milford, Conn. He seems to have abandoned it roughly two years later, after his father Robert’s death.
The material in the notebook is by turns charming, odd, and morbid. In the excerpt included here, cut down but presented in chronological order to preserve the arc of the original, readers will gain unusual insight into Langley’s creative process as well as his state of mind. Those who believe Langley suffered from writer’s block will find evidence in support of that argument, but so will those who insist he retreated from public view because he detested the attention. Yet other possibilities will no doubt occur to those who choose to look for them.
Author of Talent
The Forgotten Works of Frederick Langley
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The Lost Notebook, an excerpt
Alana catches the train from Boston to Cincinnati, snagging a window seat. Deborah sits next to her and strikes up a conversation about fur coats. It’s as good a topic as any. War. Peace. Life. Death. Fur coats. When Deborah exits the train, Eleanor takes her place. Eleanor’s topic is animal cruelty. After Eleanor, Francine talks pet insurance, and Georgina talks vegetarianism. Alana politely plays her part, never acknowledging the alphabetical chain or thematic connections, which, anyway, never amount to anything. Not only is there no climax, there is no sense of building, of anything wagered or gained. Each conversation, each story, is as meaningless and effervescent as the last. If there’s any point at all it’s to show my hand.
Sergeant Davis calls his troops together. Vietnam. They need a volunteer for a perilous mission. “I’ll do it, sir,” says Private Johnny Johnson. Sergeant Davis describes what Private Johnson has to do in extreme detail, every step of the way, to retrieve medical supplies accidentally dropped behind enemy lines. This will go on for pages and pages until the reader feels bored stiff and absolutely despises me. Private Johnson salutes his superior in a patriotic fervor. He sets out. Before he can complete step one he trips over a branch right onto a mine and gets blown up. Guts everywhere.
Strange to say Vietnam was nothing to me. Five years younger, it would have been everything. I was just old enough not to have to really care, in life or in writing. A lucky year for boys: 1938. What would the Chinese call it? Year of the…some animal just the right size to hide in a burrow while the predators get their fill.
I was fourteen, skipping rocks at Walden Pond. Veronica Lancet was there with her family but she managed to get away from them. In a quiet moment she kissed me. It was my first kiss. I remember her tongue felt like wet fruit. I remember, when I looked at her the next day, feeling like an ice cube coming apart in hot tea. Extremities tingling. Heartburn-like sensation around the…heart.
Veronica Lancet was not my first kiss. Moira Christiansen, the busty Norwegian, was my first kiss, a few months earlier in her backyard. A warm spring day. Smelled of lilac and salt. Thomas was there, watching us. I half remember him mocking me afterward with the extreme cruelty that only a big brother could muster. Did Moira’s tongue feel like wet fruit, or did Veronica’s? Wet fruit is a little imprecise and I must remember to choose my words more carefully. I mean papaya. There was no ice-cube-in-hot-tea effect with Moira, which must be why she slipped my mind.
Frank Luce writes a successful debut novel that’s turned into a blockbuster film. He makes so much money, just gobs and gobs of it, he knows he will never need to work again. But he’s embarrassed to let on that he intends to spend the rest of his life doing nothing. So he pretends he’s suffering from writer’s block.
Luce understands that the desire to do nothing is shocking to Americans. In surveys, most people call themselves “middle class,” and for all the political rhetoric about rewarding wealth, Americans find the notion of someone rich enough not to lift a finger not only repulsive but also confusing. It seems wrong. Morally hand-on-the-Bible wrong. It seems European. God forbid anyone with means takes a rest before turning sixty-five. Those with money must either make more money or assist those without. There are no other options.
I mean North Americans. Brazilians are different.
Using writer’s block as a beard, Luce makes his avocation (leisure) his vocation (leisure). Edmund Bergler coined the term writer’s block in 1947. (So says my handy Britannica. Well, not mine; Helen’s.) Bergler said writer’s block could be total or partial and that it grew out of “feelings of insecurity.” He traced these feelings to “oral masochism” and a “superego-driven need for punishment.”
I barely understand what that goddamn fool means.
Bergler thought writers starved themselves creatively because their mothers had starved them of milk during breastfeeding. Pardon me? Hilarious. At dinner parties, Luce complains loudly that his mother never breast-fed him. Too much? She’d tear her nipple away from precious little Franky and he’d cry and cry.
A world in which your parents die the instant you successfully reproduce. They’ve outlived their utility in a Darwinian sense, so why should they go on living at all? We must all choose between our children and our parents. So this lifelong bachelor believes. This lifelong bachelor whose mother took her exit long before his children, her grandchildren, were a biological possibility. I was four. Didn’t even lose my virginity for another decade. Mother left only the haziest impression. Mostly I remember absence and howling, unfulfilled want. Come to think of it, I doubt she breastfed me. Thomas might know.
Thomas said he does not know. Thomas said to ask Dad if I want to give him a stroke. There’s an idea. Two down and no need to create life to take it. Thomas said to occupy my mind with more wholesome questions. He seems to find me beneath conversation. Monosyllables and reprimands are good enough for his little brother.
Tomato salad is the best salad, followed by Waldorf, potato, egg, and green. If it contains fish, it is not a salad, it is a mash or a scramble. If menus called it scrambled tuna with carrots, celery, and whipped egg yolks, no one would order it and the world would be a better place. When I explained this to Edith, she laughed. “It’s not a joke,” I said. “I’m serious.” The next day she made me a tuna salad on rye for lunch. I washed it down with six beers.
Another fight with Thomas. When I came home from Europe he embraced me like the prodigal son and assumed I was ready to change, to reform myself. I don’t know where he got that idea. Finally he’s beginning to understand that I never had and never will have, not in a million years or more–, I can wait until the sun explodes–, any interest in his narrow sort of wife-and-child-and-job life.
That meddlesome man in Paris asked me why once. Why was my career shaped like a cliff? Or why not, more like. Why not just keep going? David or Dennis. Last name like a sea creature. What a strange question, as if the most natural thing once you’ve started is to never stop.
The lecture Dad most liked to give was on the parable of the talents, which he preferred to the parable of the prodigal son, aka the parable of the loving father — ha. It made no sense to him that a father would reward a screw-up offspring. The parable of the talents was easier for him to accept. A hard God for a hard man. Dad was a hard man, adamantine and steel. Everyone in Concord revered him. He ran a tight ship, they said, at the school and at home too. Our neighbors assumed he thought up that “business-parenting” system of paying us pennies for every completed chore, which I hated and which so many of them adopted as a way to teach the value of work and money to their spoiled, post-Depression children. Nothing was ever done for its own sake. Everything had its reward, or its punishment. Actually, Dad got the idea from John D. Rockefeller.
For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.”
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.”
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“What’s a sticking place?” Helen asked. She was reading Macbeth.
MACBETH: If we should fail?
LADY MACBETH: We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.
I said: “I don’t think it means anything specific. If I’d written that instead of the greatest literary genius of all time, everyone would’ve said it was a bad description. Too general. What comes to mind when you read sticking-place? Nothing. You get no visual. At best, the spot on the underside of your school desk where you stow your gum.”
Jeez, this kid takes sloppy notes. Doodles, mostly, and just one gem. The editors of the First Folio said of Shakespeare: “His mind and hand went together: And what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” I was like that, at first. Yes, not now, but at first. I won’t say I achieved even sticking-place-level prose. But I was like that. All the struggle happened before the words ever hit the page.
A story in which every single sentence contains at least one cliché. If not absolutely every sentence, then as often as possible.
“I’m nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof,” said Dick.
“Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” Jane replied.
“Leave it to my better half to add salt to the wound.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
What’s the difference between a cliché and a saying? Richard would know. Scratch that nonsense. He would pretend to know and make something up. He did not know how to say, “I don’t know.” Just could not get those words out of his mouth. A critic once slammed a passage in “Look Over There” in which I used the word inveigle when, he said, I must have wanted finagle. The critic was right. Richard tried to comfort me: “There is nothing worse than a young critic.” (How did he know the critic’s age?) I said: “Isn’t it your job to catch things like that?” He said: “I thought it was intentional.” (Impossible.) He was as ignorant as I of the true meaning of those words. The other possibility was that he had never even bothered to read “Look Over There.” Which was worse, ignorance or apathy? Richard did not love “Lifetime Warranty” but I know I’ll never write anything so good again, it was my peak, my high point, my crowning achievement. All the critics, including the young critic, agreed.
Helen said her allowance was too small. I said yup, I can believe that. I said: “Your father is a stingy fella. Sorry to break it to ya.” I didn’t have any cash handy so I signed and inscribed a first printing of Brutality and Delicacy and told her to sell it. Anyway, it’s not the only copy around here. After some back-and-forth she agreed. She reported that the buyer at the used-book store looked like Statler the Muppet, smelled like brussels sprouts, and gave her $175. Not bad! Helen offered to split her winnings but I told her not to worry. “Tomorrow in the shopping mall think on me,” I said. She did not get the joke. She is not a good student.
I should tell Helen about the slothful servant. From the one who has not, even what she has will be taken away. It shouldn’t be that way. But it is. Idle! Hands! Helen! Americans would not empathize with the third servant. No, not at all. Reap what you sow is the ethos of this great land stretching from sea to shining sea. Milton made the obvious leap from talent as coin to talent as natural ability.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy,” said the new throw pillow. “Have faith,” replied the usurped throw pillow, decrepit from use, destined for an odorous afterlife in the dingy doghouse.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Dick said.
“It’s raining cats and dogs,” Jane replied. “And when it rains, it pours.”
“Look at the bright side, will you, dearest?”
“I am not one to see the glass half full, Dick, you know that.”
Dad was at his most dramatic when he went into his idle-hands riff. Up at the lectern, eyebrows arched, he’d show the students his hands, look at the students, look at his hands as if they were foreign objects rising before him through some otherworldly power. “Idle! Hands! Are! The devil’s! Workshop! Workshops! Keep! Away! The devil!” I was never sure whether he really believed in God or not. Bbut, my, did he like all the accoutrements. The Protestant work-ethic aesthetic. It was all so long ago, so many decades. I’m old now, ought to just get over it. But childhood stays with you. Living with Thomas makes it fresh again.
A woman wakes up in the morning and turns off her alarm clock. Still in bed, Katherine Smith plans out what she will wear and what she will eat for breakfast. She thinks about how she will commute to work, who she will see, what she will say to them, how she will feel about what she says and does, how other people will feel about what she says and does. Finally Katherine considers what she will eat for dinner and whether she will allow herself dessert and imagines what she will read before sleep. At the end of the story she tells herself that she really should get out of bed already, what a lazybones.
For Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it
Someone had marked up Joyce’s famous riff. Above slooching, he wrote slouching? And he underlined governed by the women in it. Maybe not he. Edith? Helen? Such a funny habit, underlining. The point is to mark territory: Remember this place! Later, you come back to the underlined passage and twist it in support of an argument. Reading as a means to an end: an essay. Underliners beget essay-writers. Essay-writers take an author’s words and put them to work, turning their potential into kinetic energy.
Scott is born with a silver spoon in his mouth and he trades it in for gold. He takes his substantial inheritance and invests it in the stock market. His fortune grows and grows. Scott’s daddy is very proud, very proud, 5 percent prouder with every 5 percent gain. What does it matter that dear Scott’s successful because he’s ruthlessly amoral? Ruthlessly immoral? Because he backs companies that produce missiles and machine guns? Because he encourages these companies to sell weapons to South American psychopaths? Daddy’s so proud he gives Scott even more money than he promised. The origin of these funds? Money set aside for Scott’s siblings, who aren’t quite so driven.
He was so very unhappy when I stopped. He wasn’t happy when I chose what I chose but he accepted it eventually because he saw the royalty checks, saw the reviews, and liked to tell his friends in Concord, That’s my boy. I hated his approval as much as his disapproval. Having come around to writing, he could never come around to the end of it. He could not understand it. He could not accept it. No amount of time could make a difference. Now he’s an old man. Now he’s a sick man. One day I will have to speak at his funeral. Revenge is a dish best served in front of a cold body. Should I mention the time I asked for a kite for Christmas, a red kite for Christmas, and he bought one, and he showed it to me, and then he gave it to Thomas because Thomas cleaned out the gutters while I slept in?
Thomas caught me at the back door throwing rocks and asked me to pick up a gallon of milk from the supermarket. I said no. We fought. I said I would but I didn’t have any money. We fought. He gave me five dollars and told me to bring back three dollars and thirty-eight cents. When I arrived there was a crowd blocking the entrance. A labor dispute. The protesters adhered rigorously to the classic demonstration aesthetic, from their handmade signs to their faded jeans to the sincerity with which they called out slogans. Just looking at them exhausted me. I bought milk as requested, paid like a model citizen, strolled peacefully outside, whistled, launched the milk carton at the protesters, and ran. Got away clean. Gave Edith the three dollars and thirty-eight cents and told her to buy herself something special before sneaking upstairs.
“You look as fresh as a rose today, dear.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Jane, you are my one and only.”
“Are you trying to butter me up, Dick?”
“No need for butter, you are the crème de la crème.”
Dear Diary, writes sixteen-year-old Amanda, no one will ever read these words but I. What purity! What grace in a girl so young! Amanda shares everything with diary dearest — her first kiss, her first lay, her first cigarette. The twist: She leaves the diary where she knows her younger sister, Patricia, will find it. Every phrase is a boast or an insult meant for a very particular audience. Dear Diary, I wish Patricia wouldn’t wear those headbands. They make her look fat.
Dad said stop writing in that diary and do something. Journal. As a boy I called it a journal not a diary; diaries were for girls. Idle! Hands! Not idle at all, holding a pen, I said. Worse than empty, he said.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. (Or is that for weddings? Is it possible that’s for weddings and funerals both?) Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate or grieve, depending on your point of view, the passing of Robert Langley, a strict man, hard-hearted, shaped if not scarred by the Depression — but not in the traditional sense. It wasn’t poverty that made him. It wasn’t knowledge of hunger, cold, shame. No, no, dearly beloved gathered here today, it was the opposite: well-being.
The day of the stock-market crash he was a young man, eighteen years old, newly enrolled in college. His family had already paid the tuition in full. So while others lost their jobs, he studied. Soon he met Elizabeth, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who ran a school in Concord and who was looking for a successor. So while others waited in breadlines, he waited for his father-in-law to die.
Others might have attributed such smoothness in rough times to luck. Others might have felt guilty. Not Robert Langley, no. Oh no. Robert Langley figured — no, oh no, knew that his strength of character was the source of his good fortune. If he had a good job and good money it was because he deserved it. If everyone else didn’t, it was because they did not deserve it. If he gained while others lost, that was quite right.
Robert Langley’s outlook did not align with eye-of-the-needle Christianity, which was a bit of a problem, beloveds, seeing as he was headmaster at a Presbyterian school. But he rationalized his beliefs by putting special emphasis on John, chapter 3, verse 2, which read: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” There was nothing particularly Christian about penury. As John revealed, God was only too happy to reward His faithful followers with prosperity. All that said, one couldn’t simply expect God to peer into one’s soul and, assuming He liked what He saw, rain down money. That was absurd. One had to work, and work hard, to prove one’s worth. Malachi, chapter 3, verse 10: “Bring to the storehouse a full tenth of what you earn so there will be food in My house. Test Me in this,” says the Lord. “I will open the windows of heaven for you and pour out all the blessings you need.” The blessings you need — but earn and bring to the storehouse.
Every year on the first day of school and on the last, the same message. The parable of the talents. John, chapter 3, verse 2. Malachi, chapter 3, verse 10. Idle! Hands! Didn’t the other teachers notice? Forget the way he strained to make the words say what he wanted them to say, twisting and straining, didn’t they notice how repetitive he was?
In parenting, Robert Langley expressed his tortured if practical theology by drawing a straight line from work to reward and from idleness to punishment. He had a system. Thomas and Freddy had various chores around the house and for these they were paid cold hard cash. Or at least cold hard coins. They each had a plot in the family vegetable garden and were paid to pull weeds. Ten for a penny. Well, well do I remember that feeling, the moment when the soil released the roots. Like popping a pimple or ejaculating. But excuse me, I digress. If they didn’t pull enough weeds they’d have to pay their father instead of vice versa. But it was never “they” who failed; it was always Freddy, not Thomas. Picture this recurring scene: Robert finds Freddy daydreaming in the garden while his older brother sweats. Robert demands Freddy’s pocket change, which he then gives, ceremoniously, to Thomas.
Dearly beloved, there was just one thing Freddy did better than Thomas, and everyone knew it, though Robert didn’t care, didn’t think it mattered, didn’t think it was serious, didn’t really think it was work at all. He was onto something. What was sitting around for hours and hours and hours waiting for inspiration if not nothing? It wasn’t something. It wasn’t work. Especially not if it came so easily. A refuge from profit and loss. He ruined that too. When the critics discovered me — like Columbus discovering America, I was already there! — he decided it was worthy after all. So it wasn’t. He ruined that too.