I’d like to think that my work is informed by the Olympians, Proust and Melville, Marx and James Joyce. The reality is probably far messier, idiosyncratic and strange. When I handed in my first short story as a freshman in college my writing teacher, that fine American poet. Irving Feldman, handed it back with the comment,
“Ah, Papanikolas, I see you’ve been reading Hemingway.”
“Huh? How did you know?”
“Let me put it this way, if you came in here with egg all over your chin I would surmise you had eggs for breakfast.”
Irving has been reading my work for over fifty years, and is still quite able to spot the egg on my chin – and to tell me about it. But when I think of it, I believe I was drawn to a certain kind of work and a certain kind of observation long before I started to read the Nick Adams stories. For before I was reading, I was listening. To my mother and father’s stories about the tough little Utah industrial towns they grew up in during the 1920s, and of the lives of the immigrants and their children they lived among. Of those Burl Ives folksongs I played endlessly as a child, of the nasal, yodeling, self-pitying Country Western songs I listened to on the radio, seductive and vaguely repellent. Perhaps it was the same plangent note in them that I heard in Hemingway.
So I was always drawn to folklore, folksongs, fairytales, the human voice. One book I read when I was learning – or trying to learn – Homeric Greek at San Francisco State in the sixties was Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales. This started me to think consciously about how myths are made, what they mean, how they are constructed. I read Lévi-Strauss and Paul Radin and endless variations of the Shoshonean trickster tales for one project, and have written on Mormon folklore, gauchos and cowboys, Wobblies and the Wizard of Oz, always trying to find in them certain patterns I see in American history and culture, patterns of utopias and their opposites, of violence and idealism, of a brave new world found and lost.
I imagine that I am like most writers who find it difficult to separate the books that have influenced their writing from the books that have influenced their lives – writing is, after all, so much a part of how writers see themselves, of their daily routines. There is, however, one book that I think has not only influenced my life as a writer, but my life as an American living in history and trying to take part in the issues of his time. It was a book I had to write myself. Like many of my generation, opposition to the Vietnam War turned me to an attempt to understand the politics and economics, the myths and realities that had led to this disaster. I was, in short, getting a political education. At the same time, I was trying to recover what I could of the life of a Greek immigrant organizer for the United Mineworkers named Louis Tikas who was killed in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Traveling through Utah and Colorado with a tape recorder and notebook, interviewing old timers who had been in the Great Coalfield War was an experience that with no question changed my life. I was trying to record the words of men and women who had largely become voiceless, to thrust them back into the world, not merely as figures in some vast historical panorama – “The Workers” – but as living and breathing individuals. These were great men and women, with their flaws and their strivings. I’ve never forgotten them.
My latest book, An American Cakewalk :Ten Syncopators of the Modern World continues my investigation America and its culture. I hope it has some of the clarifying anger I learned in Colorado in the ‘sevenites, and some of the joy and grace and defiance I heard in the jazz I listened to in order to write this book – a book about some artists and thinkers who challenged the ideals of the dominant culture of Post-Civil War America not by crashing headlong into them but by syncopating them, as Scott Joplin and other rag timers had syncopated European march time and by subverting them as those slave inventors of the cakewalk had subverted through sly satire the cotillion they watched through the windows of the Big House. They are a varied lot, my syncopators, from Emily Dickinson to Thorstein Veblen, from Henry and William James to Charles Sanders Peirce and Abraham Cahan, from Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin to Stephen Crane to Charles Mingus and I hope I’ve given them a place in the American dance.
Zeese Papanikolas was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1942. He is the author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, Trickster in the Land of Dreams and American Silence. His most recent books is An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World, published by Stanford University Press.