The Feeling of Heart: A Conversation with Frederic Tuten




Author photo by Emma Jenkinson.

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IF I WERE to sum up the first two chapters of Frederic Tuten’s memoir, My Young Life, I could accurately make either of the following two statements:

Frederic Tuten’s mother and grandmother were transplants from Sicily who withered in the alien climate of the Bronx, and his father’s absence — at first intermittent, then total — left larger and larger holes in the sickly young boy’s life that were filled with poverty.

Wow — awfully sad, no? Once we have dried our collective eyes, let’s try again:

The sound and inflection of the Sicilian Italian spoken by his grandmother and mother was one of the earliest instruments that Frederic Tuten added to his orchestral repertoire of language. It was paired in an odd duet with that particular Bronx inflection that remains with him today. His father, who left the family when Frederic was 11, effectively staged an abdication that allowed the man to be preserved as a heroic figure in his son’s romantic imagination — an imagination nurtured by the enforced introspection of serious childhood illness — but which also left room for other, perhaps more suitable parental figures to step in.

Now we’re in much more hopeful territory, but that last description’s easy elision of difficulty is as suspect as the first was for its refusal to show us even a glimmer of light. 

Fortunately, Tuten skillfully maintains a balance in reporting the harsh realities of his childhood and the ameliorating influences that allowed him to achieve his yearned-for transformation from the circumscription of his childhood to the expansiveness of the artist’s life. We never have to choose between pitying or envying him. Instead, we’re gladly along for the ride. It’s a ride rooted in the Bronx of the 1940s, in that era’s collective veneration of Paris as the cultural capital of the world, and in the universal longing of youth for something beyond the confines of inexperience, diminished expectations, and the obstacles of circumstance — a “something more” that might be named “Art” or “Beauty” or even, as Tuten remarks, “God.” From the Bronx, Tuten’s world enlarges in this memoir to include Mexico, Cuba, Syracuse, and Alphabet City in New York City’s East Village. The concerns that provide continuity on Tuten’s path from boy to man are his love of reading, women, and art (in no particular order); his feelings of outrage for the condition of the oppressed; and a corresponding moral will to create common cause.

I sat with Frederic Tuten in his book- and paper-filled apartment bordering New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, where he has lived since 1964, to talk with him about My Young Life. The pressure of speech Tuten directs to form sentences about things he cares deeply about can cause words at the beginning of the sentence to rush forth and drown latecomers at the end. When he is particularly exercised, as when he speaks about education’s crucial mandates, he becomes vehement, and his exhortations exhibit his allegiance and identification with the common man. The transcription software I used was frequently befuddled by Tuten’s Bronx-hued words, and betrayed its programmers’ contemporary bias, guessing, for example, that Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun was “the mobile phone” — and, when Tuten said that the principal of his elementary school was “caring,” it substituted the more au courant “carrying.” The software’s “mistakes” point to a general cultural forgetting that Tuten’s memoir seeks to amend.

There’s no spoiler in revealing how the boy in My Young Life turns out: he’ll be okay — even better than okay. If we are lucky, we’ve read the stack of books and articles and reviews he’s written in the years since his childhood in the Bronx that prove he does become the person he longed to be as a boy. As a literary artist, Tuten has been able to reinvent his writing with a refreshing regularity, demonstrating a willingness to experiment not only in dialogue with literary tradition, but also with himself. In addition to his adept shifts of voice and sensibility, Tuten has shared some of visual art’s resistances to realism in his writing: collage, surrealism, and the mingling of so-called high and low genres characteristic of Pop Art. His literary output has always been unpredictable and fresh, and this memoir is its latest manifestation. As he remarks in this interview, “What is it I’ve been waiting to say all these years and haven’t yet said?” In My Young Life, we have an answer.

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CARRIE COOPERIDER: The title of your memoir, My Young Life, sounds as though you’re entrusting it to us and saying, “Here’s my young life — don’t hurt it.”

FREDERIC TUTEN: That’s what writing a memoir feels like. Unlike fiction, it’s about you. Not only the quality of your writing but you as a person are judged. I read a wonderful book by George Moore called Confessions of a Young Man as a teenager. Moore called it a novel, but it was clearly autobiographical. If you call what you’ve written a memoir, you can’t say the protagonist is just a character. It’s you. The key thing is finding a tone that’s convincing and sympathetic rather than arrogant or abashed. You want the reader to feel that they’re being told the truth, without shame, and with heart. What I look for in any writing is the feeling of heart, of deeply felt moments of longing and loss.

In an interview with Bruce Wolmer, you recall your resistance to writing a memoir despite encouragement by friends to whom you’d told stories about your family. How did you overcome that resistance?

In my generation, first novels were usually autobiographical; “write about what you know” meant writing about your family and childhood. I felt that was a shameful parade of feelings, as if feeling equated art. I resisted that, and I deliberately made my first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, as impersonal as possible. I wanted the book to have no hint of personality.

What prompted you to finally write a memoir?

I had been writing little portraits of friends that would also say something about our lives together. People who saw the early drafts told me that I needed to be more present in the stories. I heeded them, and thought, “How much time do I have to live, to write? What is it I’ve been waiting to say all these years and haven’t yet said?” I was still worried, nonetheless, that a memoir might seem egregiously self-serving.

Memoir puts you in the peculiar position of being both the observer and the observed.

The strategy as a memoirist is to make the reader feel compassion for you without asking for it. You can’t say, “I felt so bad.” Fuck you, you felt so bad — everyone feels bad. That’s not convincing. The balance is very delicate: how to make the voice engaging and sympathetic. That’s a really difficult thing, and I hope I did it. And although the book is structured in a continual forward chronology from ’44 to ’64, in the longish footnotes throughout, I bring events into the current world: what happened to those people, how they lived and, if they died, how they died. I wanted a balance there, too, so that people didn’t simply appear and then disappear. Above all, I wanted to leave some trace of the marvelous, touching, brilliant people in my life. One was Leonard Ehrlich, my college writing teacher, whose first novel was a huge success, but who vanished from public view after trudging along brokenhearted because he couldn’t finish a second novel. I wanted to pay homage to him as a teacher and a person. He did write two more novels, all but the last chapters. He showed me both typescripts. Another important mentor, a de facto father figure to me, was John Resko. He was a painter who was in prison before I met him, and wrote a prison memoir called Reprieve that was made into a film, but now, no one remembers him. I wanted him to be remembered. I wanted that for my family, too. I didn’t want these people to vanish, and I don’t want to vanish. I know — I’m not foolish — I know nothing lasts forever. We vanish. As Walter Pater said, one day our places will know us no more. Nonetheless, to say that “I was here” was very important to me.

You’ve written that “art is an inventory of the missing.” It’s an inventory not only of things that are already missing, but things that will be missing unless you take note.

That’s exactly right. I will miss the winter night sky along with everyone I love.

Your immense gratitude to the many people who mentored you, some of them almost accidentally, comes across clearly in My Young Life. There were so many coincidences that ended well for you.

Thank God. I felt a longing to give back to them in my book. When I was in elementary school, they thought I was slow. They were going to put me in a remedial class, but Miss Middleton, the principal of my school, PS 96, took the time to talk with me and have me take an IQ test. She moved me, not into the remedial class, but into the special progress class. That changed everything. That was it. I needed help. We all need help.

Especially children whose parents are in no position to be good advocates for them. Your mother wanted you to work in the post office, so that your children might have a better life; she couldn’t imagine that you might have.

As an immigrant, her idea was to have security, and an immigrant’s idea of security is civil service. You’re not going to get fired, the business won’t get sold, so a post office job would be perfect for me, she thought.

That’s understandable. And if not for Miss Middleton, that might have been exactly what happened to you.

Who knows what would have happened to me? Once you label a child deficient, they internalize it. That’s criminal. Luckily for me, education was different in the 1950s; the classrooms weren’t huge, and the principal was caring.

Another important influence in your life was a neighbor who introduced you to John Resko, and who gave you books, including Rimbaud’s poetry.

She was a brilliant, wonderful woman. She got me right away, and in addition to introducing me to John Resko, she introduced me to great literature. She gave me a copy of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, which I still have.

You said it was one of five or six books that you’ve taken everywhere.

Yes, I have carried it with me everywhere.

In addition to being an homage to the significant people in your youth, I also read your memoir as a history of your life and growth as a reader. An excellent reading list could be compiled from your memoir. And, as many of us did, you lived vicariously through books in your adolescence in a manner that sometimes reminded me of Bouvard and Pécuchet, as when you tried to learn how to paint the figure from a manual. Eventually, you decided to take a life drawing class at the Art Students League, but the instructor was incredibly dismissive and cruel.

Worse than that, he practiced sadism in the guise of pedagogy. When I enrolled in the life drawing class, I had just dropped out of high school. I didn’t know anything. I thought they were going to teach me how to draw from the figure. Instead, the instructor humiliated me. Pointing to my drawing, he said, “What are those?” I said, “Her feet.” He said, “Is she wearing galoshes?” That burned with me, and I thought, “I’ll never be an artist.”

That was a real exception in your life. You seemed to attract people who genuinely saw something in you and wanted to help you, and you had the internal wherewithal to do what every good improvisatory actor does: say, “Yes.”

City College was a prime example of that. It still lives in me. I longed to be there each day. My connection was profound. It was in my bones. I loved the professors, who were brilliant, but also memorably touching and warm. I still can’t get over how much they gave to us, intellectually and personally. That education meant so much to me that I wanted to teach there, and I eventually did. As a teacher, especially when I’ve felt there was something moving and worthy and striving in a young person, I’ve wanted to help, because I know how much it meant to me. I know how much it changed me, how much I needed the encouragement and feeling of beneficence.

One of the things that’s universally appealing about My Young Life is that all young people yearn for encouragement and transformation and to be released from whatever constraints they perceive are holding them back. You approach not only your youth but the condition of being young with such compassion and humor.

Yeah — of having a naïve and delusional idea of life.

Naïveté allowed you, though, to imagine only the possibilities, not the limitations of life. You assumed that you could drop out of high school — as you did at 15 — to go to Paris to become an artist and rather than worrying about learning French, assumed that since the French love artists, they would provide for you.

I had seen the film An American in Paris, in which the character Jerry Mulligan is an American living in Paris in a little studio above a cafe and everyone’s wonderful to him. He has no money, but the cafe gives him credit; everyone loves him — and as a teenager, I thought, “This is what it’s like!” I’m going to save up my money for a year and go to Paris and paint.

That notion didn’t take you to Paris, but it got you through difficult years and made you feel as though you were gaining on your goal of being an artist.

My idea of being an artist was so different from the reality. I thought that all artists shared the same values and the same ambition to make beautiful art — not money. We were struggling against the bourgeois world, transcending it, and by making beautiful things we would change the world. I thought that artists helped each other in the way that John Resko helped me. In part through his example, I learned that reading was crucial to the artist’s life. But also, when I was a kid, I didn’t have television. Everything came from books. Life came from books.

For a year of your childhood, you were incapacitated, and even after you recovered from rheumatoid fever, you had a heart murmur, so you couldn’t go the sports route. Do you think you became a more introspective person because of your childhood illness?

Being ill makes everyone deeply introspective. For other painters and writers I know who were very ill in childhood, their illness influenced everything about their being: how they thought, and what they thought about — but I loved reading anyway. My mother brought me library books for the year I was confined to bed. I read all the time.

You mentioned the idea of transcendence earlier, and in your novel Tintin in the New World, at one point you describe Tintin as a young man on his way to transcendence. Did you retrospectively identify with that potential of the young Tintin?

In Hergé’s Tintin stories, Tintin is pre-pubescent, and in my novel I transform him first into an adult and then into something more transcendent; an expansion of who he was as a child — that is to say, as someone whose mission is to do good, but amplified by something more. And I think that artists are in search of that something more.

In allowing Tintin to grow up, you also gave him sexuality. Sex and the longing for love are an important part of your memoir, and I was appreciative of your admission that “[r]everies of sex will be my companion on my death bed.”

[Laughs.] Did I really say that?

You did! You also mentioned that as a young person you always imagined that older people didn’t feel as intensely as they did when they were young. I think it’s a valuable message that it isn’t so.

I think that we all believe — when I was I kid, I believed it — that when you get older you lose your interest in sex and you become a mellow person no longer driven by the demons of desire. George Moore wrote, when he was in his 80s, about how much it had excited him when he saw an ankle of a woman getting on a bus. And he said something like, “Women, women, all I live for is women!” What a strange idea we have that one’s romantic or erotic life is finished at a certain moment.

Or that anything is ever truly resolved. I loved that the last footnote in your memoir, referring to your marriage to Simona, that concludes with, “We stayed happy for several years” in a refutation of the fairy tale ending about living happily ever after.

Someone said to me about my first marriage, on hearing that we’d been married for 10 years, that they were sorry. I said, “What are you sorry about? I had 10 years of happiness.” That’s a lot. There’s a mutability in everything, including relationships. One person can’t be everything to another person; you can give and take portions of yourselves to one another. And if those portions are gratifying, that’s wonderful, and you should be grateful for it, for however long it lasts. Emerson has a line that I love so much: life only avails, not the having lived.

You quote a line from Whitman in your wonderful “portable dialogue” with John Baldessari, in John Baldessari: Somewhere Between Almost Right and Not Quite (with Orange): “Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns.” It’s a great line, and one that I think sums up your memoir.

From “Song of Myself.” I love Whitman so much. You know that when Whitman uses the word “spend,” he’s talking about orgasm?

Right. The idea of going in for your chances, to advance your dreams, whether those are reveries of love or accomplishment, seems apropos to the story of your young life. Maybe this is the right time to ask if we can anticipate a sequel to this memoir, perhaps My Slightly Less Young Life?

My Golden Years? That would be funny. I have actually started a second volume that begins with my work in the welfare department in 1964 and picks up from there with my married life with Simona, and proceeds to the period where I’m starting to meet people like Susan Sontag and Roy Lichtenstein, when the whole world changed for me. I’ll see how far I can go with that.

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Carrie Cooperider is a writer and visual artist who lives and works in New York City. Her work has appeared in such publications as New York Tyrant, The Antioch Review, The Southampton Review, Cabinet Magazine, and Artishock.


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