Tim O’Brien’s Literary Love Letters
BY BRIAN C. McNERNEY
To measure the worth of an author, some turn to literary criticism. Others cite sales figures; The New York Times Bestseller List famously performs this service. Still others trust word-of-mouth recommendations.
To provide a different measure of Tim O’Brien, I have quoted from letters sent to him. O’Brien’s papers have been archived at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin since 2007. Anyone can visit the HRC and read O’Brien’s rigorous manuscripts, including the many versions of the superb twenty-one chaptersor interconnected talesthat comprise The Things They Carried. That’s where I read his correspondence from five decades of literary production.
A rich diversity of people have been compelled to contact O’Brien: women and men; schoolchildren and elderly citizens; veterans and warriors and peaceniks and accidental readers. Each articulated the profound impact of a story or novel by O’Brien, a southern Minnesota native who spent much of his post-Vietnam life in Cambridge, Mass., but more recently relocated to Austin, Tex.
A teacher from Houston wrote O’Brien in 1991, perhaps to justify her decision to expose her sixth grade students to “The Lives of the Dead,” the heartbreaking closing story from The Things They Carried. “You have become, in short, the patron saint of my 6th grade writing class,” she wrote. “Congratulations.” That book has been anthologized so often that it may have replaced The Red Badge of Courage as the archetypal introduction to American war writing. Matt Gallagher, a writer and veteran of the Iraq War, recently wrote in the LA Review of Books, in “Forty Years after the FallVietnam War Lit in 2015,” that he first read O’Brien as a high school sophomore. Gallagher emphasized the need to avoid seeing O’Brien purely as a war (or antiwar) writer: “War is not a descriptor to be stuck on a person,” he wrote. “War is a subjectone of the most destructive, and self-destructive, human endeavors.”
Some admire O’Brien’s craftsmanship. A reader from The New Yorker editorial office wrote: “I don’t have to tell you how well you use dialogue to allow men who otherwise have been mistaken [as] ordinary reveal what’s peculiar and engaging about themselves.” Others have compared his work to Ernest Hemingway’s (“ ‘Speaking of Courage’ is the only masterpiece I can think of in American literature that can stand absolutely with ‘Soldier’s Home’ ”); James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.
A Long Beach correspondent praised O’Brien’s best-known work: “It is so beautifully crafted that it seems to have been born that waywhole and perfect like whatever god that was that sprang out of his father’s forehead.” A public relations officer for the Detroit Tigers wrote: “I have numerous vices and few virtues. One virtue, however, is honesty and so I must graciously tell you that I bow down before your writing talent.”
A Dallas Morning News reviewer insisted: “I’ve got to make you read this book. There’s an occasional story that I can’t read aloud without having my voice break, without getting all teary,” pointing to Things as such a story.
Many correspondents are driven to make O’Brien himself acknowledge the grief, the keen pain of insight and sometimes hope that his stories evoke in them. “Thank you for writing The Things They Carried,” wrote a Seattle woman. “Your book ripped my heart out.”
I contacted some of O’Brien’s letter writers to ask them to revisit their state of mind from sometimes decades earlier. The range of reactions provides yet another measure of the considerable force O’Brien exerts over readers’ imaginations.
A woman from Minnesota had known O’Brien in college and traveled with him to Prague in 1967, a fact noted in If I Die in a Combat Zone. Her reticence, and even guarded distress, at the risk of being mistakenly portrayed was expressed during an hour-long telephone conversation that found her wrestling with old, weary demons. What she reveals is an abiding respect and memory of acute concern for the fate of an exceptionally bright aspiring writer. Clearly, O’Brien was already nurturing hopes of a writer’s life the summer before he received his draft notice in 1968.
Other letter writers were disarmingly open-hearted. Ron Corradin from St. Paul, where O’Brien attended college, wrote that he “remain[s] impressed by Tim O’Brien’s work and his tenacity.” He seems particularly impressed that Macalester College, which O’Brien attended, “included a lot of vague men and tough women. Tim O’Brien is not vague, and I would guess he was not vague as a college student at Macalester, certainly not by the time he graduated.”
Corradin’s original letter to O’Brien was written in a parody-as-homage style that described what he saw his fellow American citizens carrying: “The John Wayne caricatures of soldiering, endlessly repeated, the nightmare fears of death and crippling and fear itself, the confusion.”
Writer Tracy Burns, who moved to Prague, provides a connecting thread to the summer O’Brien spent there before the Prague Spring. Burns wrote to O’Brien, “This may sound stupid, but Ted Lavender, Rat Kiley, that nine-year old girl who died in the story…they’re all real to me; and they can never die.” Readers following the main character of “The Lives of the Dead” have witnessed O’Brien’s lesson about the inevitability of death, and understand Burns’s insistence on characters’ capacity for endless resuscitation.
E. Megg Magee, a Baltimore poet, proved a riveting correspondent. She has a keen ear for the turn of phrase and a discerning eye for elegant imagery. She wrote: “This is me: reading your books very, very slowlyto make them last for me; and I laugh and I weep, and you are really itthe most reasonable, profound, moving writer on the war I’ve ever had the pleasure (and heartache) to read…if you carried things from the war there, these are the things you give away: a true wisdom, a startling honesty, a courage which is peaceful and truly brave.” Magee epitomizes O’Brien’s appreciative audience.
Ultimately, the voices of veterans provide the most insights. Among hundreds of letters, I encountered dozens from veterans. Their messages seem cut from a common cloth, one woven from the indelible burden of experience.
Thus, a veteran of the 23rd Infantry Division (O’Brien’s unit) wrote about Going After Cacciato: “It’s wonderful, a velvet dagger.” Another veteran wrote: “I want to thank O’Brien for bringing to print emotions and images of the baggage I carried and still carry from my stay in Southeast Asia.”
A veteran from Ontario, California, wrote that If I Die in a Combat Zone “has proven the classic and definitive statement on the Vietnam War and the grotesque and absurd experiences of those who served there.” A Hawaii resident indicated, wryly: “You ain’t alone pal. You are a little ahead of the game. I know the fantasies, I did ten months with the 101st in Vietnam.”
Others merely placed themselves like colored pins on a map of the battlefield. A writer from Carmel, California, noted, “In 1969 I served as an artillery forward observer with the First Infantry Division out of Dau Tieng.” Some veterans confronted unresolved despair. In 1979 one wrote he was “not ashamed to admit having wept several times during the reading of Going After Cacciato. When Billy Boy died of fright I relived more experiences as a corpsman than I care to describe.”
The voices testify to an extraordinary writer, one whose skills as an interpreter of war experiencebut more importantly as a human striving to live meaningfullyendures. O’Brien, in notes for a writing class, declared: “My primary intention is always to move the reader’s heart, so that love may be felt by knowing hate, so that beauty may be felt by knowing ugliness.” A scribbled note added: “Using stories to save lives.”
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