A father's words, lost, and found again
Duluth News Tribune, June 19, 2005
By Robin Washington
In his preface to "Lake Wobegone Days," Garrison Keillor warns readers that the book is at best a second-rate effort, his greatest work being a novel he lost in a train station with no hope of finding or replicating.
That resonated with me. As an eighth grader, I had written nine short plays based on the antics of my classmates, with titles like "Putman's Complaint," "The Death of Miss Corrigan" (an embattled substitute teacher), "We Likes to Do It," and "Nothing."
Inspired by Fernando Arrabel and Luigi Pirandello, "Nothing" wasn't that bad for its genre. But the rest were forgettable, and that's just as well, because I lost them all behind our piano in the basement not long before a thorough spring cleaning. The plays were gone, though later a friend insisted excitedly that he had seen an advertisement for "We Likes to Do It." I explained it was more likely a production of "As You Like It" by another author.
So I should have known better about taking meticulous care with irreplaceable manuscripts by the time I moved from Chicago to Duluth to Boston in the mid-1980s. In particular was the poetry of my father, who had died not long before. Though he spent his career in plastics, Atlee Washington was at heart a poet, and in the 1950s was one of a small number of African-American graduate students at the University of Chicago, where he received a master's degree in English. He also attended the Breadloaf Writer's Conference at Vermont's Middlebury College, where he met Robert Frost. Impressed, Frost recommended my father to his publisher.
They found merit in his work, and offered to publish his manuscript, "A Soldier's Sonata," about his experiences as a black Army Air Force officer from the North stationed in Alabama during World War II. But because the company had a limit on poetry titles, he was told he would have to wait a few years for the book to appear.
My father couldn't wait, however, and with an over-confidence from Frost's endorsement he sought another publisher, who readily signed him. The book was in the galley proof stage when - this was all told to me by my mother, by the way - the publisher and the publisher's wife shot each other to death. Stunned, my father couldn't muster the strength or swallow the pride to go back to Robert Frost, who died a few years later.
So the galleys sat around until my father's death, shortly before which he asked me to publish them in chapbook form. But one morning not long after the move to Boston, with my family not yet unpacked and the sounds of the garbage men approaching, I grabbed a half-filled trash bag lying on the floor and ran out to the street. Hours later, I realized what I had thrown away.
If my father was rendered speechless by his ill-fated attempt to get published, I was devastated. Though I still had some loose poems he'd written later in life - after he'd supposedly given up poetry - this time most of his work was truly lost, forever.
I told virtually no one, and never my mother, though I would occasionally press her into repeating the story of the manuscript in the hope that new details would emerge. Pretending not to know, I'd ask if he'd ever got it published, and one time she surprised me by saying offhandedly, "Oh, he got it in some left-wing journal or something," but did not elaborate.
That trail ended when my mother passed away in 2003. News coverage of her death placed her name widely on the Internet and last winter, I did a search of my father's name as well to see if his obituary was archived.
It wasn't. Instead, I found:
"Gutenberg Holdings at antiqbook.com -- BONOSKY, PHILLIP, S. FINKELSTEIN, ATLEE WASHINGTON, PHILIP STEVENSON -- Mainstream July 1961 Vol 14 No 7: Report From Budapest, Updating Shakespeare, A Soldier's Sonata."
I ordered it immediately. A monthly magazine, "Mainstream" was indeed left-wing - unabashedly Marxist in fact - and included several blacklisted Hollywood writers. My father was described simply as "A Negro writer from Chicago." The selection opened with a sonnet:
Now I, who lately cried for rest, return
my vision earthward in unquiet shame
knowing no poet honoring the name
has peace on earth, until his flesh is borne
slowly and cold to the last citadel;
so I will mix in all the goodly fray
great forces now are shaping ... the array
is mighty, and the struggle terrible.
With all have bled to help a fellowman,
the humble and the homeless ones: the throng
who are the least of these -- all who are not
fearful of blood to work a better plan
of life ... it is with these I cast my lot.
It is unmistakably his voice, but other poems I remember weren't included; the magazine had printed only an excerpt from the manuscript. Missing in particular is one entitled "Sikeston, Missouri, Jan. 25, 1942" that began: "And after they drag your black body from the swamp." That's all I recall. I know now it's about the lynching of a man named Cleo Wright. Gone too is "Jean," a poem to my mother, as well as the more mysterious "Lois" that even after my parent's divorce Jean was less than thrilled about.
But the bulk of his work does exist, and somehow, I feel -- know, really -- the rest does, too. Forever isn't as long as I thought. Happy Father's Day, Atlee.