Happy Birthday, MacKinlay Kantor

February 4, 2004

Haec et olim meminisse juvabit . . . (and in the future it will be pleasant to remember these things).
                                — Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), 70-19 BCE, Roman poet
                                     The Aeneid

Today marks the centennial of the birth of MacKinlay Kantor, novelist, journalist, screenwriter, combat pilot, expert on the Civil War and police procedurals, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Medal of Freedom, husband, father, and hero for more than forty years now to a (still) aspiring writer to whom he was once very kind.

I first heard of MacKinlay Kantor in January 1962. I know this because I have in my possession the library card I signed the day I borrowed his short novel Valedictory from the library of Bishop McDevitt High School. I was in ninth grade, and six weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday.

I can see myself in those days. I visited the library nearly every day during our long homeroom period, sometimes after school. Fiction was shelved along the inside wall of the library, and at right angles were the stacks that held biography and the directory of religious communities that I consulted frequently that year and the next. I had recently concluded my first virtual visit to Harper Lee’s Macon County, Georgia, and chances are I was running my eyes and my fingers along the spines of the novels, looking for another world to get lost in, another father figure as appealing and desirable as Atticus Finch.

And I am fairly certain that it was the title that drew me. I knew that a valediction was a goodbye. I’d recently read Milton White’s short-short story “To Remember These Things.” The narrator’s favorite teacher writes the line from Virgil in his yearbook, as a valedicition, he says, and as the narrator walks out of the school for the last time, he thinks about the part of himself that he is leaving behind. Even then the themes of loss and remembering ran deep in my soul.

Kantor’s book is a slim volume, literally, 7 and 9/16 inches by 5 and 1/4 and less than three-quarters of an inch thick. It would be easy to miss, and judging by the borrower’s record card, it was. From the time it was acquired in 1940 until the day I picked it up in 1962 it had been signed out only five times, each time to a faculty member, the last one being Sister Mary Clotilde, who needed to return it by January 21, 1943.

In less than 50,000 words, MacKinlay Kantor gives the reader Tyler Morley, the school janitor in a small town in Iowa, who is retiring at the age of seventy-six and going to live with his daughter in Nebraska. As he watches the Class of 1922 receive their diplomas, he remembers the encounters he had with them and with other students, and he ponders the joys and the sorrows his life has held. It’s a sentimental tale written in an old-fashioned style, and I doubt it would find publication today. But I loved it. I signed it out officially again for another two-week period in 1962, once as a tenth grader in 1963, and twice again in the fall at the beginning of my junior year. I have all this information because some time after that I took it out unofficially, slipping it into a notebook without signing it out, and never returned it. Some teenage girls steal clothes and makeup. I stole books.

By the fall of 1963 I had read a good deal more of MacKinlay Kantor’s work, borrowing most of it (officially, and dutifully returning it) from the downtown branch of the public library. I read some of Andersonville, his novel about the notorious prisoner-of-war camp in 1860s Georgia, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, Signal Thirty-two, one of his police novels, and Diversey, a gritty book about gangland Chicago in the 1920s that featured an unmarried couple who slept together, their lovemaking not described in explicit detail but alluded to enough to be both shocking and exciting to me (and to be described by a South Carolina senator as “the dirtiest thing I have ever read”).

Like most people of my generation, I can tell you exactly where I was when I learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I was in eleventh grade chemistry class, and tucked into my notebook was the draft of a fan letter I was writing to MacKinlay Kantor. I must have finished it over the next forty-eight hours, because I remember walking to the mailbox at Twenty-first Street and Parkside Road in Camp Hill with it about an hour after I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get murdered on live television. Mr. Kantor’s gracious and personal reply is dated three weeks later, December 15, 1963.

He begins by saying that he gets lots of letters from readers and rarely replies to them in detail, but “the freshness and exuberance of yours put it quite in a class by itself.” He encourages my aspirations as a novelist, saying that my voice is clear and vibrant, and recommends that I read what he considers his best novel, Spirit Lake, because I seem sensitive and understanding and resilient enough to appreciate it. He includes an autographed copy of The Guntoter, a collection of short stories about the denizens of the Missouri hills.

I still have the Signet paperback edition of Spirit Lake I bought the next week for ninety-five cents. It’s a big, squashy novel, the kind that’s called a saga, more than 850 pages with a three-page bibliography. It traces the lives of some white settlers and some native Dakota in northern Iowa, culminating in what became known as the Spirit Lake Massacre in the hard winter of 1857. It’s got birth and death, joy and sorrow, love and hate, tenderness and violence. I read it at least three times. It’s falling apart now, and if I wanted to read it again I would have to acquire a hardbound edition, because the type on my copy’s yellow, tattered pages is too small for me to see comfortably. But as I look it over, I know that during the sporadic times when I work on my own saga of the Whitmoyer family of 1880s Berks County, it is this book that stands as my model.

Kantor continued writing into the 1970s. His last novel, Valley Forge, was published in 1975. He died at his home in Sarasota, Florida in 1977, remembered as a versatile writer of both popular and historical fiction who made important contributions to the American literary landcape.

When asked about his writing process, he once said, “You have to put words on paper, a lot of them.” As I struggle with my own commitment to developing as a fiction writer, I remember that forty years ago he thought I could make it. Thank you, Mr. Kantor, for your faith in me, for your example, for the joy your words have given me. And happy birthday.

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