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The Phenomenal Universe

By John Sakowicz, A&S '77, '79 (MA)

Charles Newman at Hopkins in the 1970s Earlier this year, on March 15, a literary giant died. I'll call him a literary giant.

This man was part of the extended family that we call the Johns Hopkins community. He was the chairman of the Writing Seminars from 1973 to 1977 and was a mentor to many of the department's most famous graduates, like Louise Erdrich. He was a friend and colleague of many of our most esteemed faculty members here at Hopkins, like John Barth, John Irwin, and Richard Howard.

He was the editor who discovered or championed many of the world's most important fictionists and poets of the second half of the 20th century. He was a difficult, though dazzling, novelist. He was a critic. Most of all, he was the great impresario of experimental fiction.

And he had the impossible good looks of a GQ model. And he was married five times. And he loved women and women loved him. And he drank too much. (A friend of his recently told me that for most of this man's life, his liver was on a "Bataan Death March.")

This man was a literary rock star, very much like Jack Kerouac, insofar as he was a genius of the troubled, superluminous, and fugitive type.

His name was Charles Newman.

Charles Newman, dead at 67.

It's hard to believe. Because Charlie was the very personification of raw talent, energy, libido, and life-force.

Surrounded by Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners, etc., Charlie lived and worked in a phenomenal universe. But his own mind — -packed with a wealth of extravagant literary theories, wild metaphors, paradoxical and perplexing lists of literary things-to-do, willful contradictions, mind-blowing metafiction, and transformative teachings — was the real phenomenal universe in which Charlie lived and worked.

And I was his student.

Before Charlie came to Hopkins, he was a young instructor in the English Department at Northwestern University, where he turned an inconsequential campus publication into one of the world's most prestigious literary magazines, TriQuarterly, and he was its editor for over a decade.

At TriQuarterly, Charlie showcased such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, William Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton, W.S. Merwin, and John Ashbery.

Charlie kept pretty good company. And he had a lot of peer respect.

In addition to being a publisher, Charlie was a mind-blowing novelist, as I mentioned. He was a delight not just to other writers but also to readers of serious fiction. He was the author of White Jazz, The Promisekeeper, and New Axis, among other books. Each novel is a challenging but also seductive linguistic performance.

Charlie's last and unfinished novel, which he started 20 years ago, is about the death of those two great social revolutions of the 20th century: Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism.

Yeah, you nailed that one, Charlie.

I once had somebody ask me what Charlie's novels were about. What was Charlie about?

The bigger question is, what is experimental or post-modern fiction about? What is John Barth about? What is John Gardner about? Despite their differences and pissing contests, what is any of these writers about?

Charlie had each of his students, including me, ask this fundamental question.

And the answer is that these guys are about a proposition: What can fiction be?

Fiction can be both an axiom and an idiom. Fiction can be both an elaboration and obfuscation. Fiction can be both immediate and resonant.

Fiction can be both the wheel or rack or iron maiden of exhaustion and the fountain of replenishment (definitions courtesy of John Barth).

Fiction is about "aboutness" (also courtesy of Barth).

Fiction can be about both "thereness" and "betweenness." Fiction can be about both "what is" and "what is more than we can ever imagine or guess."

Why should the average person on the street care? Why give a rat's ass?

Because pushing the limits of fiction pushes the limits of language. And it is language that makes us fully and uniquely human.

This was the phenomenal universe of Charles Newman, this proposition and this answer.

Q: What can fiction be?

A: It can be limitless. It mirrors the limitlessness of the human condition.

All this sounds pretty academic, but Charlie was no mere academic. No way.

I asked Joe McElroy, a teacher and friend, who once taught at Hopkins and who is, in his own right, a literary lodestar in a cold, black universe, how he remembered Charlie.

This is what Joe e-mailed back to me, and I'm paraphrasing:

Charlie was always the shrewd American kid making his way through the Fulbright Scholar curriculum at Oxford, the wanderer who loved central Europe, the student of politics and economics who took note of America's cheerful ignorance of world affairs, the minor-league ballplayer, the American dreamer with a grandiose investment in the construction of cabins in North Carolina or Virginia (I'm not sure which) — who was very nearly killed by one of his farm employees who came at him with a pitchfork — the working vacationer on a shrimp boat, the traveler down the Mississippi on a barge, the breeder of Hungarian hunting dogs, and the literary giant who said what he really wanted was to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

To which another friend added, Charlie kept two things in the bottom drawer of his desk. An autographed copy of Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. And a bottle of whiskey.

This friend continued, I once remember sitting with Charlie there in his office in Gilman Hall and drinking with him as daylight faded. He started talking shop — the New Fiction. It was weird. And wonderful. Weird and wonderful.

Charlie was sitting there, talking in the dark like some sage. He was painting this mural of the great literary achievements of my lifetime. It was like watching someone paint by the numbers, but Charlie was painting in the dark.

Remember those paint-by-the-numbers kits?

Well, Charlie was sitting there in the dark, getting drunk, quoting Calvino in Italian. And Czeslaw Milosz in Polish. And Joseph Brodsky in Russian. And Octavio Paz in Spanish.

And he continued by talking about the disillusioned leftist politics of Susan Sontag. And the violent season of literature coming out of the Vietnam War.

And how Aztec art with its themes of dismemberment and reintegration was the inspiration for the fiction of magical realism.

And how Pablo Neruda believed that following an insane commander into war or obeying an unlawful order was, in and of itself, a dangerous and inexorable force that could lead to the destruction of a nation or an army.

I just sat there, and I listened, and I watched, as Charlie painted the big picture of world literature right there in the dark.

This, my friends, is a phenomenal universe. And my years as an undergraduate and graduate student of Charles Newman were an unplanned tour in this universe.

It was one of the best times of my life.

Thank you, Charlie.

John Sakowicz is former CFO and a founding partner at Battle Mountain Research Group and former national sales manager for commodities and futures at Dean Witter Reynolds. He won a PEN USA WEST award in 1997 for writing about the AIDS epidemic.

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