RARA-AVIS: Digging For Lew Archer

From: southpaw@altavista.net
Date: 18 Jun 2000


Digging for Lew Archer By TOM NOLAN Sunday, June 18, 2000 The Los Angeles Times

   <IMG> The Renaissance of Ross Macdonald's Mystery
   NovelsIs Stirring Interest in the Late Writer's Muse.
   For the Source of His Hard-Boiled Fiction, Look to
   Auden, Hammett, Dante and Dickens.

The roots of private eye Lew Archer are back there, in a Michigan classroom, between the world wars, long before anyone had ever heard of the man who would become America's most intellectual mystery writer. The course was "Fate and the Individual in European Literature," taught by the young, already world-famous English poet Wystan Hugh Auden.

One afternoon, Auden asked his class: "How do you define the difference between a symbol and an allegory?" A hand shot up. It belonged to Kenneth Millar, a gifted 25-year-old who had turned to the University of Michigan graduate school as he struggled to find a creative outlet for his prodigious mind. "The connection between a symbol and its referent," he said without pause, "is emotional, and unconscious. That between an allegory and its referent is rational."

Auden prodded: "Yes, and?"

"And specific," Millar answered.

"Yes," Auden agreed. "Moreover, a symbol will often announce itself long before you experience it in the text. That's the case with Moby Dick: You experience it as a giant meaning before you have any concrete thing to attach it to. This is not the case with an allegory: The rational and specific and concrete nature of an allegorical reference, such as 'the flag,' means nothing until it is encountered. Mr. Millar is absolutely right."

Auden was impressed, and so was Millar. As the school year wore on, the brilliant poet, then 34, gave Millar's work A-pluses, even if the student brashly defied the teacher's rule forbidding the taking of notes
(essential points, Auden believed, would linger in memory).

Millar found in Auden an inspired teacher, a genius intellect and a would-be mentor who offered to introduce him to the editors of the New Republic. Millar called Auden "a young Socrates and an old Ariel rolled into one." He began attending the informal "at-homes" Auden hosted for his students on Friday nights. Eventually, Millar and his young wife, Margaret, invited Auden to dinner in their rented house. It was there that the poet helped sow the seeds of Lew Archer.

Margaret Millar had by then written four mystery novels, with editing and plotting help from her husband. Millar enjoyed the collaboration but had not yet written a book of his own. His aims were loftier. He aspired to write great fiction.

But he was troubled. Whatever he did in life, he wanted to be the best, a high standard that kept him from starting. He'd dreamed of writing novels -- until he read D. H. Lawrence and knew he could never surpass him. Millar had a small flair for poetry but a former classmate, Robert Ford (later recipient of Canada's Governor-General's Award), showed what a true poet could already do at their age -- Millar was no match. He loved modern drama (Ibsen, Strindberg, O'Neill), but after seeing plays in London and New York, he realized that a working playwright needed an active theater scene to sustain him. Millar had loved mystery fiction since childhood, but it wasn't thought worthy of a serious writer's or reader's time. Critic Edmund Wilson had dismissed detective stories as

As Auden dined with the Millars that night, he praised Margaret's work. The poet had first broken into print by writing mystery reviews for London newspapers and he still read detective stories avidly. Auden, it turned out, was no literary snob. Writing mystery fiction was artistically legitimate and had social merit, he said. He especially liked the mystery writers Millar most admired: Raymond Chandler, whose vivid style was a gust of fresh air through the academic corridors where Millar worked, and Dashiell Hammett, who'd first grabbed Millar's attention as a teenager in Ontario. Auden even paraphrased a Hammett sentence in one of his best-known poems. With his talent for making startling and valid connections, Auden helped Millar see the links between popular culture and the highest art, how from the lowly Elizabethan revenge play grew "Hamlet: Prince of Denmark."

Auden thinking well of mysteries, Auden thinking well of Millar -- the two fused in Millar's mind and induced the notion that writing mystery fiction could be his way to make a mark. The more Millar considered it, the more he thought there was still room for artistic growth in detective fiction, that even Hammett and Chandler had not done all that could be done with and within the form, and that being the world's best mystery writer might be a worthy and plausible goal. If Millar couldn't match or beat D. H. Lawrence, maybe he could surpass Raymond Chandler.

Although it would take years for Millar -- writing under the name Ross Macdonald -- to create the character of California private eye Lew Archer, Auden had opened the door for books that a New York Times reviewer in 1969 would call "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." Later in life, Millar would judge meeting Auden as one of the four or five most important things that ever happened to him: "He liberated me into my life."
* * * ROSS MACDONALD SEEMED THE QUINTESSENTIAL Southern California writer. Living in Santa Barbara, he refined the California hard-boiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler in a string of works narrated by Archer. But this standard-bearer -- whose bestsellers of the 1960s and '70s inspired a generation of West Coast crime writers from Sue Grafton to Michael Connelly -- came of age in Canada in the 1920s and '30s and in the '40s was one of the most brilliant graduate students at the University of Michigan.

How did an intellectual who wrote a PhD dissertation on the psychology of Coleridge become the culminating figure of California hard-boiled fiction? It's as complex a story as any in a Ross Macdonald novel. And, as often is the case with Macdonald, the story involves someone changing his name, moving to another place and assuming a different identity.

Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, Calif., in 1915. His parents, Canadians, immediately took him to British Columbia, where, when he was 4, they separated. Son and mother went to live with her people in Kitchener, Ontario. They had little money and his mother was unstable. Millar would remember begging in the street for food. When he was 8, his mother filled out papers to place him in an orphanage. At the last moment, he was rescued by his father's cousin, who took him into his home for a year.

Young Ken then lived with other relatives in Alberta, and Manitoba, and Ontario. From an early age, he escaped into books: everything from Charles Dickens to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Lord Byron. By 12, he wanted to be a writer, someone like Dickens, who wrote classics that spoke to all types of readers.

As a teenager in the Depression years, angry at being poor and fatherless, he broke laws, fighting violently, getting drunk, stealing. At the same time, he haunted the library, studying to be a writer, educating himself about the world. He consumed all sorts of books with pleasure: pre-Socratic philosophy, Vienna and Kansas psychology, mysteries by everyone from Doyle to Dostoevsky. Keats and Shelley showed him poetic heights. Hammett mirrored the city he saw around him.

Hammett, in fact, was a special case for Millar, who found the author's books not in the library but on a rental rack at the Kitchener pool hall. Why wasn't this essential new writer in the public library?, Millar wondered. Then he found out. Hammett actually was in the library, but hidden in a back room, where he couldn't offend sensitive patrons.

Outraged at being robbed of the chance to read something so vital to his education, he climbed a fire escape, broke into the library after hours and made his way to where the banned books were kept. He read his fill. On his way out, he took an armful of poorly written new fiction from the open shelves and, on the way home, dropped it into the Kitchener sewer.

A few years later, he'd be abashed at what he'd done. But books were a life-and-death matter for him, and writing well seemed a sacred act. Teen-aged Kenneth Millar was already making the sort of firm critical judgments -- about books and about people -- that would characterize his life and that soon brought great tension to his years at the University of Western Ontario.

Millar enrolled in 1934, paying for his four years there with $2,000 that his father, for years a patient in a charity hospital, left when he died. On campus, his brilliance was obvious. He was so smart that it was almost scary. Indeed, some teachers seemed afraid of him, given that he often knew more about their subjects than they did and, though polite, did not defer to their ignorance. His literary efforts, including stories, poems, and essays published in the UWO Gazette, made him suspect in the eyes of a large chunk of Western's student body, which thought creative writing ungentlemanly.

Millar stood apart even more after his mother died and he took a semester off for a trip to Europe -- Ireland, England, France, Nazi Germany. He came back to campus wearing an English trench coat and green Bavarian fedora with white cable-cord trim. What had he been up to in Europe, some wondered warily: espionage? Others found his behavior off-putting in a different way. "There's a screw loose somewhere in that man," the dean of the university said. The college annual mocked Millar's somber mien, captioning a glaring photo of him: " 'Smatter, Ken?"

The few friends he did make in college were those who could see beyond his idiosyncrasies to appreciate his intelligence. Donald Pearce was one. Try as he might to stay clear of Millar, one day he found himself in rehearsal with him for Western's production of "Twelfth Night." As the two stood listening to another student recite a showy first-act speech, Pearce said: "Isn't that magnificent!" Millar scoffed: "That's just rhetoric. Elizabethan rhetoric."

Pearce was shocked, but Millar's certitude drew Pearce into a discussion. Pearce found Millar a person of verbal and mental strength, someone who without brutality could put a sort of conversational headlock on you. Talk mattered to the self-taught Millar. A 30-year friendship began.

Millar was not without champions on the Western faculty, some so impressed that they treated him like a colleague. But no one, Millar included, knew quite what he should do with those gifts. Finally, with his professors' encouragement, he decided to develop his literary-analytical facility through graduate study at a U.S. university, perhaps Harvard, after which maybe he'd make his mark as a critic (as would other Canadians of his generation, including Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan).

Yet despite his qualifications, Millar failed to win a postgraduate fellowship. He had applied to Harvard, under the impression that one of the UWO faculty, a Havard graduate, would give him a strong recommendation. But the best that teacher found to say, it seemed, was that Millar had cut a very "colorful" figure at Western. Millar's hopes were dashed and it was too late to secure references from other teachers.

Bitterly disappointed, Millar put his dreams on hold. The day after graduation, he married his old Kitchener high school crush, Margaret, who soon became pregnant. Now competing with his desire to be a man of letters was an equally strong urge to not ruin things as his father had. Millar chose to do the responsible thing and become a high school instructor. He enrolled in a teachers college in Toronto, where in the spring of 1939 he turned out enough penny-a-word poems, stories and sketches for Toronto publications to pay his wife's maternity hospital bill. The Millars and their baby daughter moved back to Kitchener, where he taught at their old high school.

He supported the family and helped with household chores, which allowed Margaret to begin her own writing career. Her first novel, with ample assistance from her husband, sold in 1941. The timing was good: That same year, Millar was offered a teaching fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he'd been attending postgraduate summer courses since 1938. Margaret's new income made the move possible.

Once there, despite his affinity for Auden and critic Cleanth Brooks, he found he hated academic politics. Maybe mystery writing would give him a way out. Working secretly two hours each night in his office on the deserted campus, he wrote a spy story, "The Dark Tunnel," in 30 days. Margaret's New York agent sold the book immediately to Dodd, Mead. Now there were two novelists in the household -- but one of them was about to go to sea in World War II.
* * * DESPITE AUDEN'S ENCOURAGEMENT, MILLAR "FOUND" ALTER EGO Lew Archer as much from personal necessity as from artistic inspiration, and not until after he'd served two years as a U.S. Navy officer and written a second spy thriller, "Trouble Follows Me," between duties at sea.

Back home, Margaret's career was moving fast. Her latest title, "The Iron Gates," did well and was bought for filming by Warner Bros., with Maggie to write the screenplay at the Warner lot in Burbank. With her
"Iron Gates" money, she bought the Millars a house in Santa Barbara. He learned about it in a letter: a fait accompli. When he got out of the Navy, his wife said, he wouldn't have to go job-hunting or back to school -- he could just write.

Millar didn't think it was that simple. He found it unnatural for his wife to be the family's chief breadwinner. He felt "kept." If Millar was going to hold his own in this household, he'd have to make money, even if he couldn't hope to match his wife's wages. As often seemed the case in his life, it was put-up-or-shut-up time.

After returning home, he gave the experiment a year. What would he write during that self-imposed race with the calendar? It had to be something he could do well and sell quickly. That meant crime fiction. With two genre books and some good reviews under his belt, Millar wasn't going to jeopardize his momentum. But he wasn't content to repeat himself. Even within genre confines, he wanted to grow as a writer; that was part of his experiment, too.

He drew on his angry memories of growing up poor in Kitchener to write the hard-boiled "Blue City" in less than a month. At his suggestion, the New York agent submitted the book to one of the most respected publishers in America, Alfred Knopf, who bought it. By then Millar was writing a second postwar suspense novel, "The Three Roads," which Knopf also took. Having turned out two commercial books in less than a year, Millar had proved that he could make a modest living. He now allowed himself to tackle a "real" novel about his troubled adolescence, the serious book he'd long intended.

But when he put pen to paper, the pages came out wrong. Millar the trained critic saw the problem. What should be clean and precise was emotional and sloppy. Where the author should be detached and objective, he was upset -- still mad about what had happened. Another writer might have kept working at the manuscript, but Millar couldn't afford to. He'd lost the best part of a year on the effort, while Margaret continued to turn out books, including a comic work about her own Kitchener childhood which became a minor bestseller.

To hold his own, he conceived a novel with a new private-eye hero: Lew Archer. The book, which he wrote and rewrote, was in the Hammett-Chandler mode but he wanted to extend and expand those writers' styles, not simply mimic them. Millar hoped to put his own stamp on the private eye story, and he looked for ways to reshape the form.

Auden's influence rose again. Millar remembered "The Divine Comedy," which he'd studied closely for Auden's class, where he'd gained a great appreciation of Dante's technique. Millar had pointed out back then to his friend Pearce, who also had gone on to the University of Michigan, that the imagery in the Inferno was heavy, concrete, specific, dark: "So like the place that's being described." But how different was the Purgatorio imagery, Millar said: "It's clear, rational, careful and calculated -- exactly what ought to occur in a place where you get cleansed of all your mud and error and sin and guilt." Now Millar put such stylistic lessons to use, making Dante's "Comedy" a frame of reference for Archer's California, whose citizens evade or become exposed by or struggle toward a clarifying light.

Millar wrote "The Moving Target" and sent it to his publisher, who made a decision that unintentionally completed the evolution of Kenneth Millar into Ross Macdonald.

Knopf unexpectedly balked at buying the book, claiming it was inferior to the firm's two earlier Millar novels. But the publisher just as surprisingly agreed to print the work in 1949 provided the author take a pseudonym. Millar chose as his new ID his father's middle name, Macdonald. As for the "Ross," it was a common name in Canada then, occurring in both Ken's and Margaret's families -- and as the middle name of friend Donald Ross Pearce.

Lew Archer's first case was a success; the book was chosen by a mystery book club and a paperback house. As the Archer series continued over the next quarter-century, Millar found that his mystery fiction could accommodate as much of his literary knowledge as he cared to put into it. He purposely constructed Archer books on the frameworks of Greek myths ("The Drowning Pool," "The Way Some People Die," "The Galton Case"), Romantic odes ("The Chill"), Victorian fiction ("The Instant Enemy") and 17th century French fable ("Sleeping Beauty"). He filled them with apt allusions to Sophocles, Coleridge and Dickens, and he wrote them in a style adapted from Symbolist and Imagist poets.

Over time, the books revealed more and more of his individual experience: his troubled youth, his good and bad relatives, his concerns for his wife and daughter. He came to see that he needed the mystery form to deal with sensitive material that he was unable to handle more directly. By the time of his death in 1983, Ross Macdonald had altered the detective genre to tell personal stories resonating with classical echoes -- to write books that moved and had meaning for all types of readers. The sort of books he'd always wanted to write.

* * *

Public radio station KCRW (89.9-FM) will present an unabridged dramatization of Macdonald's "The Zebra-Striped Hearse" starting at 9 a.m. on July 3.

- - - Tom Nolan Is the Author of "Ross Macdonald: a Biography," Published Last Year by Scribner. His Last Article for the Magazine Was a Reminiscence of Musso & Frank Restaurant in Hollywood

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