Dad used to joke about what he was reading in the waiting room when we were born. Titles I remember are Nausea and As I Lay Dying.
This did no justice to his first wife and mother of his three sons, but it is a funny reflection on an earnest, hard-working Depression-era guy who came from a blue-collar family with two disabled, stay-at-home sisters. His own parental career began early in college and produced the third son when he was in graduate school at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa (in Iowa City, Iowa, in case you’re lost).
He was a good teacher, newspaperman and Peace Corps supervisor. After a collection of short stories for his MFA at Iowa — the first Robertson I know of to make it past high school — he managed through sheer grit to pound out at least two novels, 25 years apart, the first one serious, the second one funny. But nothing sold.
I still have the 359 onion-skin pages of the first one, immaculately typed by himself on a Smith-Corona portable nearly 60 years ago. I can still remember the sound of his thick fingers pounding the keys in the basement, before and after work.
His brilliance with language extended from fiction and poetry and newspaper writing to fluency in Spanish and Turkish and letters that melted your heart and put iron in your spine. From him — the sound of childhood Theodore Roethke readings still rolling through my mind — I got my own love of words.
He finished his first novel or started a second in Mexico, after leaving home. He came back, but maybe after relinquishing some of his writer’s fire. He gave his time to his sons and understanding new wife, aging parents and ailing sisters. Sometimes he couldn’t take the mainstream and would break away, once in the middle of the night to follow King on the march from Selma to Montgomery. But somehow, with all his strength and grace, he could not make headway in the publishing world.
I look at this picture of him looking tan and tough in the mountains of Mexico after he had retired from the Peace Corps to try to write again full time, but was not yet free of family responsibilities. The note on the back of the photo says, “Enroute to the village of Cuale, Mexico, 1975.”
I think he got trapped by the post-war, suburban stability version of things before he could really let loose with the Great American Novel. And he probably was too kind anyway to write the truth. He was never free of the family he grew up in, let alone the one he produced.
He enlisted in the Marines after high school, but World War II was just over and his struggles became the post-war, middle-class challenges of money and family, even as he started college on the GI Bill. He had no connections in the Ivy League literary scene and career had to be less an ambition and more one that paid the rent. We were always on the short end of the American dream, although never out in the cold. My stepmother’s love and money might have given him more chances. I always thought he was smarter and tougher than anything, but we learned that didn’t include booze.
Freedom was his treasure of the Sierra Madre. I can see the look in his eyes.
But the more I study this photograph, it looks to me like he was sitting on a tailings pile of an abandoned mine. Maybe gold or silver. I’m guessing he thought of the ironies before I.