THE VISITABLE PAST
A WARTIME MEMOIR

By LEON EDEL

THE UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI'I PRESS

Copyright © 2001 Biography Research Center. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8248-2430-X



Chapter One


I AM DRAFTED


I was thirty-five when I was drafted into the American Army on July 12,1943. The century's second world war had been under way for almostfour years. At the time I was working for a media oddity called PM, anewspaper which took no advertisements. It was printed on coated stockand sold for ten cents, a high price in that era of penny sheets—a kindof daily version of Time, but more liberal, pro-Roosevelt. I had beenthrough a rather long journalistic apprenticeship starting in high school,when I worked one summer on a small town newspaper in Saskatchewan.Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, I had been taken in 1910 to Canada's westernfrontier by my Russian-Jewish parents. They had fled Russian pogroms,and in leaving America were fleeing one of the nation's recurrentdepressions.

    When on June 26, 1943, I received the draft board's notice, the formalpresidential summons to serve the land of my birth, I was startled.Early middle age, I had believed, protected me from service. I alsobelieved I had a double nationality. I used my Canadian identificationdocuments in Montreal, and my American birth certificate in NewYork. But Canada hadn't called me, and in 1943, the U.S. did. I certainlyfelt I was nothing like a soldier. By inclination I was a pacifist,over-educated for barbaric struggle. I had a doctorate from the Universityof Paris, and certain literary aspirations. Besides, I couldn't see myself inuniform.

    I could claim no exemptions. I was married but childless; I had noapparent physical disabilities. When I looked into the question of age, Idiscovered that the draft, which had begun with twenty-one-year-olds,was reaching out in both directions. Eighteen-year-olds were now beingcalled, and some of the more up-to-date generals argued a motorizedarmy could call on older men as well. And we now know that givenHitler's massive military force, the American military leadership neededlarge reserves. If the President wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrelwhen he summoned me in 1943, though, he was digging down as deepas possible. I thought myself—what with the stresses of deadline pressure,irregular meals, continual smoking, and a certain amount of indiscriminatedrinking—to be rather a poor physical specimen, a possibledisgrace to any uniform. As a newsman, I at one time had acquired aduodenal ulcer, and more recently was showing signs of a tachycardicheart. Still, I could be considered as ripe as the young for certain kindsof service. How ripe remained to be seen.


* * *


On July 9, when I reported for induction, the doctors took my medicalhistory. Naked in the chilly cubbyholes where I was examined, I movedfrom one doctor to another. My bodily orifices were inspected. I waspounded and tapped—auscultated was their word—and generally pronouncedhealthy. The ulcer history didn't bother them. I telephoned mynewspaper to say I was in the Army's clutches.

    I was escorted with some fellow recruits to an army hospital at FortJay, on Governors Island off the southern tip of Manhattan, for X-rays.We wore purple hospital robes and swapped stories about draft boards,draft dodging, exemptions, fantasy options. My companions were young—truck drivers, blue-collar workers, and a Brooklyn taxi driver, an Englishman.I was the only "intellectual" among them. One young man, Ithink a salesman, who knew he was a serious ulcer case, passed aroundforbidden fruit that might underline his disability—a box of excellentcigars, and a bottle of whiskey. Since we weren't patients, the nurses paidlittle attention to us. With a wink at me as he lit his second cigar, theyoung man said, "Good for what ails you, eh?" The idea wouldn't haveoccurred to my impractical self. Still, I took his suggestion. I cautiouslypuffed to see what a good capitalistic cigar would do to me, and sippedmy whiskey gratefully. The next morning, when we were X-rayed, theyoung man was promptly dismissed. As for me, I drank the prescribedbarium, faced the fluoroscope, and was pronounced fit.

    I had mixed feelings, and an inner sense of alarm. Nor was the fearof a possible battlefield softened by the realization that violent deathsalso awaited civilians in the bombed cities. I filled out forms. Then wewere escorted to a large bare room, where we were lined up and took theoath of allegiance. I had never before taken a loyalty oath. In Canada wesimply sang "God Save the King." I felt a bit of a fraud as I repeatedAmerica's solemn words. My former loyalties were profound, andCanada had been in the war since 1939.

    I knew little American history. I was well versed, however, inCanada's—the Old Regime when France had ruled; the Franco-Britishwars, with Wolfe and Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham; the defeatof the Americans in 1812. Earlier came the histories of the adventuringfur companies, the resilience of the Iroquois and the Cree. I shared thegeneral attitude of superiority assumed by Anglo-Canadians towardAmericans, and the insistence of the French that they were the only genuineCanadiens.

    Moreover, I had learned during my Montreal years to dislike America'sbig business, its politics, its arrogance, and the general nationalboastings. The British parliamentary system seemed to me tidier, morecivilized. In later years, I used to tease Edmund Wilson, a startling Anglophobeconsidering his saturation in English literature, by saying that inCanada parliament questioned the prime minister, whereas in the UnitedStates, it was the American press that questioned the President. As forthe American tourists who came to Canada during prohibition, I consideredthem a bunch of hopeless drunks.

    I was, as is said now, a Euro-centered youth. In my childhood I hadbeen taken with my brother to Tsarist Russia, for a fifteen-month visitto my mother's parents in the Ukrainian town of Rovno. I had also metmy father's mother—the widowed Grandmother Dina, who wore hermourning perpetually for Judah Leon Edel, whose name I carried. Shelooked like Queen Victoria. My childhood reading had been Dickensand the Boys' Own Annual, which was Anglo-Imperial (all for King,Country, and the Church of England), although Mark Twain, LouisaMay Alcott, and Horatio Alger, Jr.'s stories about little American boysrising to success gave me an early sympathetic feeling for some aspectsof American life. I had always felt myself, with my exposure to my polyglotparents and their memories of Europe, to be rather cosmopolitan.Though unorthodox, my Jewish upbringing made me feel that warringagainst the Nazis was self-defense. I also hated Mussolini and Franco,but I didn't consider Stalin as belonging in their cretinous world. I hadalways regarded him as a Russian tyrant a couple of centuries behindwestern civilization. A strange and even bizarre personage: a Marxistwho thought himself a Tsar.

    After taking the oath of allegiance to the U.S.A., I faced a gentlemanlyyoung corporal, who asked me what service I might want to join."The Army," I exclaimed, adding "Of course!" I was adamant because Ifelt it would be better to be on firm ground than on an ocean filled withenemy submarines. Nor had I any desire to venture into death-dealingairplanes: it was dangerous enough being on terra firma. The polite corporal,a graduate of some prep school, clearly thought I was making amistake. He considered the Navy the most aristocratic branch of theservices. Shipboard offered an exclusive society, while land fightingmeant sticking your nose into the earth. But my choice placed me in themainstream of America's citizen army, which is what I wanted. I was tobe a plain GI, participating in a vast common national experience withinthe history of our twentieth century.

    The corporal told me that I was officially on a month's leave "to putmy affairs in order." What affairs? I assumed this meant I should makemy will. I had no savings, no inheritance. What had I to bestow? Andmy marriage—seven years of aloofness. My wife too was Jewish, the onlychild of immigrant parents. We came together in Manhattan out ofloneliness, into a disjunctive existence. Our working hours testified tothis. I was at the newspaper from 4 p.m. to midnight. She worked in anoffice from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. We met at odd hours in sleepiness andfatigue, out of a want of tenderness and intimacy. But our union wasessentially loveless. Brief physical couplings quickly settled into distancingand silence. She seemed as forlorn as me. We were probably loneliertogether than apart. My tendency towards a sedentary, reflective lifedid not accord with her fondness for hiking and swimming. I might sayof her truly that she was a "good sort." If this sounds condescending, shecould say the same of me.

    We never managed to create a genuine domesticity out of our threelittle rooms, the one-person kitchenette, and the narrow bathroom atthe top of fifty broad steps in our converted Manhattan brownstone. Wehad few meals together. We had minimal furniture. The bedroom wasnarrow and dark, the "living room" served for our limited activities. Itslight came from a rectangular side window that looked down on sadbackyards, a couple of wizened trees, and the dingy rears of other brownstones.We had a relic of a fireplace. On chilly nights, when we couldafford to buy wood, we lit a cheering fire for a couple of hours. But theyellow flames merely created a logging for space and elegance.

    A small room was attached to our "living room," I presume for thechild we were supposed to have. I used it as my study, with its couple ofshelves of books and a large, cheap, second-hand desk, the kind you pickup in New York after any election. Its drawers were stuffed with unfinishedjottings. I still nourished the dream of some day becoming a writer.I usually got a running start—when I had an idea—and then lost mypace. My excuse was that my night work offered me little sleep. I didn'thave the peace of mind for writing. What I really needed—the timewould come for me to see this—was more self-confidence. At thirty-fiveI had behind me fifteen years of study, of competent journalism. But Ihad never overcome certain immaturities and provincialisms. I remaineda country boy—afraid of girls, afraid of the world.


* * *


I went to Martha's Vineyard for a couple of weeks before reporting forduty. My wife couldn't join me—she had to stick to her job—and I confessI preferred to vacation alone. Before leaving Manhattan I looked forsome reading, and spotted on a shelf the fat paperback of Tolstoy's Warand Peace. Just the book for me, I said, laughing. I would choose that! Ibelonged to another age, and he had gone back for his subject to theNapoleonic era, long before his own time. I told myself the obvious: allwars are simply different forms of killing. Then I wondered at my bookishself, my need for books. I would do better during this furlough tochase girls. Many came to the island in quest of company. But I wasn'tthe chasing sort. I had a monogamous conscience. My intellect interferedwith my senses: I had a Puritan rearing. On the Vineyard I couldgive myself over to the sensuous calms and crashings of the ocean, thecomforting sun-warmed dunes, the call of the seabirds, the quiet descendantsof Indians at Gay Head.

    I sank into the Tolstoy novel on the beach, or in a deck chair in frontof my hilltop inn, caught up in the human relations of his story, interwovenwith commentaries on the nature of armies. Above all, there werethe great writer's broodings on causality. I arrived at Prince Andrei."Why are you going to war?" he is asked. Because he "must," he says.But aristocratic Andrei wasn't drafted like me. Finally he says, "I'm goingbecause this life I'm leading here—this life is—not to my taste." Wasn'tI—deep down—doing the same? For unknown reasons I now yielded toa national summons which I might have resisted in various ways. I couldhave fought it on grounds of my pacifism, or sought a medic's job. Thedraft, however, offered me a chance to escape from everything—everythingsave the threat of death.

    I seemed more than willing to leave it to the government or theArmy to take care of my existence. Another voice, however, whispered,"There are moral responsibilities in this life as well as material ones.What of your wife?" As for her, my departure for war could be no excusefor raising the subject of what our marriage meant. This belonged to thefuture. Now I would go and do my duty, such as it might be. Becominga soldier was an act of colossal avoidance.


* * *


I returned from the Vineyard and spent a few anxious days, mostlyalone, deep in my fancies. I sorted my few books, looked into the deskdrawer filled with unfinished writings, and closed it promptly. Would Iever see it again? I postponed my farewell to my parents to the last minute.They lived in a small detached apartment in my brother's house inQueens. A longish subway ride. The cars were half empty. I traveled as ifI too were empty of all feeling save a melancholy that had seeped into mybones. I tried more agreeable thoughts. The rattling subway remindedme of a little journey four months earlier to Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania.I had been invited to say a few words about Henry James at the notedwomen's college—the first occasion when an institution took note ofmy earlier Jamesian writings. The centenary of James's birth was beingobserved, and the college took pride in being one of the very few inAmerica that obtained a commencement lecture from the novelist in1905, during his much publicized return to the U.S. My mind suddenlysees the face of a youngish poet named Wystan Auden, also invited onthat occasion to read a recent poem describing his feelings at the Cambridgegrave of Henry James. My notes say I found him "a sort of codfishEnglishman seeming only half interested and in reality rather bored."But I add "I think this must be a mask. Every now and then a rather likableface pushes through." My talk was brief and full of my earliest affectionfor James, long before I decided to write his life. I felt it to be anirony that I was leaving for the Army at the moment when a revival inJames's reputation was beginning.

    The hour spent with my parents. Both had fright in their eyes. Theiroldest son was ending up a soldier, and soldiers still meant to them themarauding Tsarist military that killed Jews. Mother was dry-eyed butfull of doom; my father's gentle words were a request that I write oftenand take good care of myself. They kissed me; they cried. My youngerbrother wasn't present—he was detained at City College, where hetaught philosophy. We exchanged farewells by phone.

    I awoke early the next day, August 2, 1943, placed a few essentialsplus the bulging Tolstoy in a small container. My wife and I had littleto say to one another. We silently drank coffee, adrift in our dividedselves. I managed to consume a piece of dry toast. I blurted out a goodbye,then gave her a frozen kiss, which she returned. As I descended thelong stairway, I heard the door click shut. The subway was noisilycrowded. Early morning New York was going to work. I was going to awar. Pennsylvania Station wasn't far away. Twenty minutes later I descendedstairs to the lower floor. Draftees drifted in—sad, silent faces.Some of the men fell asleep. I attempted to go on with Tolstoy. But myeyes refused to be attentive.

    An hour or two later a Long Island train turned up. My eyes watchedpassing fields and houses, till I somehow became the train, and itsmonotonous clatter. Then, at some point in the early afternoon, for asplit second I saw a small pool of water, gleaming in the middle distance.A single moment of brightness, piercing the day's frozen feelings. Yearslater in the Hague, I would seek out Vermeer's view of the city of Delft.A painted little patch of yellow wall, which Proust mentions in his greatnovel of remembrance, reached out for my eyes. And suddenly, so toodid that little reflecting puddle, glimpsed at the first hour of military initiation.Memory at work.

    At Long Island's Camp Upton fate intervened. I recognized a manbehind a desk. He was drafted from my newspaper, where he worked inthe legal department. He left his desk, told me to stick to this line, andhe would take care of me. "We must put down every particular," he said,"It can make a great difference." My education, my journalism, the languagesI speak, all aspects of my career, my Franco-Canadian background.He lingered over details. What was my salary at the paper? TheArmy needed to know. He particularly emphasized my being a linguist.He kept others waiting—"There, we've got you properly identified." Hewished me luck. After this—it was now late afternoon and I was exhausted—wewere conducted into a classroom. "A little exam," said a fatstaff sergeant, "You're back in school." He handed me a printed form.I'd never taken an IQ test before. I started plodding through the questions,answering them in their sequence. Later I learned this was a mistake.You were meant to skip around. No time to ponder. Before long abuzzer sounded. I was only half finished. I knew I'd failed. I asked anofficer if I would be able to take it again. He said yes. I should apply assoon as I got to the next camp.

    The following morning we're once more on a train. I now have aduffel bag full of gear. I'm dressed in khaki. My external transformationseems complete. I have the outer appearance of a soldier: my militaryeducation is about to begin.