Book Review Essay

The Winter’s Tale? A Life of Anthony Hecht

A biography is the most intimate form of history, and like any history it faces many perils: obsolescence in the face of new research, say, or death by pedantic digression. Above all, a biography risks the fate that economic historian Arnold Toynbee is said to have feared for any history: becoming “just one damn thing after another.” But the poet David Yezzi, whose Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life[1] is the first biography of its distinguished subject, is too much of an artist to let a formless bolus of facts escape his laptop and settle between the covers of a book. Instead, he tells a tale with a turn. Just as in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the first three acts of the story are grim and tragic. Hecht—whom Yezzi sometimes calls “Tony,” familiarity being another of the biographer’s hazards—suffers a miserable childhood, endures bigotry at school, is sent into combat at a tender age, witnesses the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and enters adulthood crippled by anxiety, insecurity, and trauma. He struggles to fit these experiences into poetry, but the reticence he develops as a kind of armor holds him back.

And then—as in The Winter’s Tale—the final acts of the story turn away from tragedy, and Hecht is saved. “Good fortune,” Yezzi writes, “came to him after the traumas of his youth, the way that tragedy sometimes resolves unexpectedly as comedy.” Redemption arrives, as it so often does in literature, in the form of love. A good woman—Hecht’s second wife, Helen—teaches the wounded poet that he, too, numbers among those worthy of love. The skies brighten, the poet’s tongue loosens, and in speaking his pain he is reborn. It’s a grand story, with the added benefit of being thoroughly researched. But how much of it is true?

About Hecht’s suffering Yezzi is never wrong. Many a writer has struggled with unsupportive parents who fear that their child will, in choosing a life of poetry, condemn himself to a life of poverty, frustration, social marginalization, and associated miseries such as alcoholism, addiction, and romantic disorderliness. Hecht’s parents, well-to-do but downwardly mobile Manhattanites, worked hard to discourage their son from a commitment to poetry. Their attempt to dissuade the young Hecht from the literary life was, in many ways, a scene familiar from many literary biographies—distinguished only by how they recruited a family friend, Theodor Geisel, known to the public as Dr. Seuss, to talk sense into their son. That much-beloved writer urged Hecht to read the biography of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and told him he would find in it definitive reasons to avoid poetry. Hecht, intent on preserving his literary ambitions, never so much as cracked the book’s spine. Neither have I, and I wish, perhaps with others in similar circumstances, that Yezzi had done the legwork for us and found the passages that Geisel had in mind.

Proscriptions of poetry were the least of Hecht’s problems with his mother and father. Hecht’s younger brother Roger suffered a number of ailments—impaired vision, a partially paralyzed right hand, a congenital limp, and severe epilepsy among them. It is understandable that Hecht’s mother, Dorothea, made Roger the focus of her attentions, but even so, the corresponding withholding of tenderness from her older son is hard to explain. She seems to have viewed him with hostility and to have seen any accomplishment of his as a perverse diminishment of Roger. When, for example, the results of a school aptitude test arrived at the Hecht household, she seemed quite pleased to report to Hecht that he had no aptitudes whatsoever. After he took up piano in order to impress his musical mother, she gave up playing altogether and ignored his efforts. Cold and formal, she was always distant with Hecht, making him doubt his own fitness as an object of affection.

The difficulties in Hecht’s relationship with his mother pale in comparison to his struggles with his father, Melvyn. Melvyn Hecht failed multiple times in business, and he was, in the end, salvaged only by Dorothea and her family’s solvency (she claimed at one point that his salary was secretly funded by her relatives in an attempt to help him save face in the workplace). Melvyn suffered multiple mental breakdowns, was prone to erratic behavior, and inexplicably attempted to kidnap Hecht from Bard College. Where Dorothea saw Hecht as a rival to Roger, Melvyn looked upon his older son as a personal threat, an opponent to be defeated through various inscrutable subterfuges. When Hecht checked into a mental hospital, depressed in the dark aftermath of his horrible first marriage, his doctor expressly forbade Dorothea or Melvyn from visiting on the grounds that it was bad for Hecht’s mental health. But Melvyn evaded guards in order to see his son. Hecht describes the incident:

I don’t know how he got in, but he did, on the pretext of bringing me some toothpaste or cigarettes. He suddenly appeared one day, very briefly, in the hall, and handed me these things. And his grin was terrible, almost triumphant. I was revolted. We exchanged no words.

For Hecht, the incident illustrates the lengths to which his father would go in order to score points against him. There are really only two ways of interpreting the incident: either Melvyn really did want to show Hecht that he could do as he pleased, despite the wishes of his son and his son’s doctors; or Melvyn was trying in a twisted way to express affection for his son. I don’t know which option is worse: in the first case, the father is actively hostile to his son during a moment of great vulnerability; in the second case the relationship has become so poisoned that a father’s attempt to reach out comes across to his son as a revolting act of pettiness.

Throughout his life Roger followed in Hecht’s footsteps to the extent that he was able, attending the same college and developing similar interests. When he, too, decided to be a poet, this only added to Hecht’s sense that family was rivalry. As Hecht once told an interviewer:

I remember feeling from very early on that any success of mine was ipso facto painful to both of them. My father was ashamed of his failures and resented my successes, and I was completely aware of this. . . . When you feel that the work you do best and enjoy most causes anguish for others . . . you are understandably hampered.

Hecht was not alone among poets in seeing other poets as rivals—one of his less attractive habits was keeping an envious eye on the recipients of fellowships and honors, despite receiving bushels of them himself. But if he was consumed by a sense of rivalry and competition, a look at his childhood and family life makes one thing plain: he came by that habit of mind honestly.

“For many complicated reasons, my childhood was a rather bitter and lonely one,” wrote Hecht in a letter to Jon Stallworthy. Much of the bitter taste came from Hecht’s school days. He attended a number of prestigious private schools in New York, where the anti-Semitism ranged from subtle to overt. The Hechts were secular and in many ways assimilated Jews, but no amount of assimilation was enough for some of his teachers and schoolmates. He was particularly stung by the casually bigoted comments made during a lesson on The Merchant of Venice. Much later, Hecht was able to write one of his most substantial essays on Shakespeare, attributing the play’s anti-Semitism less to the playwright than to the culture that surrounded him. This shows a depth of engagement traceable back to the formative, traumatic moment in Hecht’s education, and also exhibits a degree of distance from any sense of personal injury. But in school the young Hecht lacked the resources to dissociate himself from the immediacy of the insults. Summers at a predominantly Jewish camp in Maine provided relief from his feelings of exclusion. If, however, one sits down with Late Romance already knowing the general outline of Hecht’s life, reading about Hecht’s camp experience means reading in the shadow of what comes next—army training camps, war, and participation in the liberation of those most horrifying of twentieth-century phenomena, Hitler’s concentration camps.

Hecht experienced his army service as a betrayal. At first, his aptitudes (which, contrary to his mother’s beliefs, existed in abundance) put him in the ASTP—the Army Specialized Training Program. This project, designed to cultivate the technical and language skills of talented soldiers and junior officers, took in young men who would become some of the leading literary lights of their generation, including Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal, and future luminaries as various as Henry Kissinger and Mel Brooks. Unexpectedly high casualties on the battlefields of the European and Pacific theaters resulted in the program’s cancellation, though, with its participants parceled out to established combat units. Yezzi quotes the critic and veteran Paul Fussell on the experience of the young men of the ASTP. They were, Fussell writes:

. . . plunged into hell: they became infantry replacements and were sent to the hardest-hit divisions . . . In their infantry companies they were buddyless and shunned as almost dangerous strangers. These embittered replacements were a most pitiable group, lonely, despised, and untrained, deeply shocked by the unexpected brutalities of the frontline and often virtually useless.

Hecht, who could never bring himself to fire his rifle in combat, fit this description perfectly. Never one to bow to authority, he rankled against foolish officers whose plans, in the end, saw more than half of his company killed or wounded in action. In the final days of the war he and his unit walked through wrought iron gates that bore the motto Arbeit macht frei, into the Flossenbürg concentration camp, finding corpses and starving survivors. There was no turning away from it: Hecht’s proficiency in German and French meant that it fell to him to interview both the survivors and the perpetrators of one of the century’s most unspeakable crimes.

After all this—and a tour of duty in occupied Japan—how to go on? Back in America, Hecht took to drink and to silence. Like many veterans, he rarely spoke about his experiences. One of the mysteries of his life has to do with the moments when he did speak of the war: he always claimed to have helped liberate not Flossenbürg, but the more infamous camp at Buchenwald. Yezzi, always sympathetic to his subject, calls this a slip of “no great matter,” but if it were a mistake, it was a recurring one—Hecht even reiterated the claim on camera in Mel Stuart’s film Anthony Hecht: The Poet’s View. Did Hecht fictionalize because doing so cushioned him from traumatic memory? Did he use the name of the better-known camp to avoid having to explain the nature of Flossenbürg and his experiences there? No answer presents itself in the pages of Late Romance, and it is likely we will never know.

Like many in his generation, Hecht embarked on a literary career and an academic career simultaneously. Interrupted by the war, he had a checkered academic history, but it was his time at Kenyon College that proved decisive. He arrived after the departure of Robert Lowell and the first generation of John Crowe Ransom’s protégés but was taken under wing by the grand old poet-critic, whose natty dress, formal manners, New Critical principles, and commitment to the life of letters provided Hecht with a model for how he might assemble a future for himself.

He constructed something else to go along with his literary life, too: he created a persona, what we might almost call a carapace. In an academic career that took him on what he called “many years of pilgrimage over the academic map,” from Smith to Bard to Rochester to Georgetown, he adopted the dress and mannerisms of an English gentleman, perhaps in response to what he called the “covert anti-semitism” in some of the departments in which he taught. Beginning his career at a time when creative writers were still viewed with some suspicion by their more conventionally trained colleagues, Hecht compensated by becoming what Yezzi calls “the very model of a modern literature professor: bearded, tweedy, pensive, reserved.” Hecht gravitated to teaching Shakespeare more than creative writing. While his love of Shakespeare was deep-seated, it was also an important part of this process of self-creation. “Nothing could be more canonical” than Shakespeare, Yezzi writes, nothing “more revered and accepted on both intellectual and aesthetic grounds.”

Except for his short time at Bard, Hecht was never really happy in academe: at Georgetown, he once issued 15 failing grades to a class of 41 students, something perhaps more reflective of frustration and bitterness than of the abilities of students at that selective institution. Nevertheless, he always professed a love of Shakespeare and, as he put it, of being able “to communicate that excitement and that pleasure to students.”

Hecht’s voice was a vital part of his studied self-creation. Those who, like me, encountered Roger Hecht’s voice before hearing his older brother’s could find Hecht’s speaking voice something of a surprise. Roger spoke in a manner identifiably of New York City, but his brother? Some have called the accent he developed “mid-Atlantic,” and I have heard at least one writer of distinction call it “Culver City classy,” a reference to the cultivated Hollywood speech made famous by Katharine Hepburn and others of her generation. The poet Louis Simpson joked in North of Jamaica that his Hecht-character, Christopher Green, “attended writers’ conferences at Kenyon College where he developed an English accent.” Yezzi acknowledges the strangeness of this but also notes that the acquired accent faded away in conversation as Hecht became more relaxed with his interlocutors. Placed in context, the voice is clearly a response to deep-seated insecurities, to Hecht’s sense that his true self would not be accepted by the world around him. Persona and reserve were armor, and Hecht was too wounded to go without them.

Was reserve good for his poetry? At first it was not, at least not when Hecht tried to write about his most troubling experiences. One early attempt to put his war experience into verse, “To a Soldier Killed in Germany,” frustrated Hecht, who saw it as too stuffed with artifice to succeed. Another such poem, the sonnet “A Friend Killed in the War,” transposes war into Biblical imagery and, apart from a striking if gruesome image of the soldier’s “flesh opened like a peony, / Red at the heart, white petals furling out,” it ushers us away from the direct treatment of the horror of experience. Hecht admits that in his early attempts to write about war he “wasn’t able to write about it well.” He left both of these poems out of his first book, A Summoning of Stones, and neither appears in Philip Hoy’s newly published and otherwise comprehensive edition of Hecht’s Collected Poems.

Later attempts at war poetry, such as “Christmas Is Coming,” also suffer from their indirection. Allen Tate found the poem puzzlingly allegorical, and Hecht agreed, saying “The poem floats in some region between raw fact, dream, and parable, in what in the end, seems to me a soft and impalpable blur.” The tendency toward obliquity continued throughout Hecht’s career: “The Cost,” for example, his response to the shooting of student protesters at Kent State, takes its imagery from the Roman Empire’s Dacian Wars and Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s not that it is a bad poem—far from it—but it’s the sort of thing that gives credence to Louis Simpson’s uncharitable treatment of his Christopher Green when he has his narrator complain that “none of his feelings were expressed in his poetry such that you could recognize them. . . . Once I dared to hint at this and he said, ‘You’re wrong, absolutely wrong. I’ve written it all in a poem.’ He showed me the poem, a verse play on the theme of Andromeda. The scene, Ethiopia . . .”

Surrounded by poets who delighted in breaking through reserve and into confession, Hecht sometimes found himself out of fashion. While he was personally fond of the confessional poet Anne Sexton, for example, he objected to what he described as the way she “exploited her hospitalizations and periods of dementia.” For much of Hecht’s career, the pleasures of his poetry were not found in emotional directness, but in erudition, in what Yezzi calls his “sweet tooth for elaborate figures,” and, sometimes, in wit of the sort that informs comic poems like “The Dover Bitch.” Yet in his later books he was capable of tremendously powerful poetry, shorn of the distancing devices we find in the earlier work. “The Book of Yolek,” for example, a poem from his 1990 collection The Transparent Man, returns Hecht to the matter of the concentration camps of the Second World War, and here the dazzle of erudition and figurative speech cedes ground to emotional power: the poetry is very much in the pity. We see in his later poetry an openness about personal trauma of a more domestic kind, too, as in these lines about the end of his first marriage four decades earlier:

Many long years and some attachments later
I was to be instructed by the courts
Upon the nicest points of such afflictions,
Having become a weakened, weekend father.
All of us in our own circle of hell . . .

In David Yezzi’s telling, it was Hecht’s second marriage that allowed him to open his work up to the direct treatment of emotion. He met Helen D’Alessandro at a literary event in New York some years after she’d been his student at Smith College, and after a whirlwind romance, they were married. Her unconditional love—so unlike anything Hecht had experienced growing up or in his first marriage—made him feel reborn. The dedication he attached to his book Millions of Strange Shadows says as much. “For HELEN ‘of whom I have / receiv’d a second life,’” it reads, echoing The Tempest. Yezzi is at pains to cast the marriage as a turning point, telling us that “Helen embraced life and took real pleasure in living. Her optimism and hope boosted Hecht’s spirits, and in her company, he felt his true self.” There is no doubt a great deal of truth in this. And yet, reading about the events Yezzi recounts rather than the analysis he gives them, one cannot help but see the indelibility of the bruises life left on Hecht’s soul. Hecht remained unreconciled to his parents all his life, his sense of rivalry with Roger continued to trouble him, he was often miserable in his academic roles—their increasing prestige notwithstanding. In later years, he took to firing off angry letters to the press, and he remained hypersensitive to the occasional ripple of criticism in an ocean of praise.

If the shape of Yezzi’s narrative follows The Winter’s Tale, the events themselves balance any comic ending with the sentiments of Benjamin Ivry, whose obituary for Hecht in the Wall Street Journal invokes a very different Shakespeare play:

Mr. Hecht often stated that his favorite Shakespearean tragedy was King Lear, which ends with a statement readers may echo on bidding farewell to this great American poet: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

This sort of acknowledgement of the sufferings Hecht bore can only increase our admiration for all that he accomplished.

David Yezzi is to be admired for his dedication to his subject and his diligence—50 pages of endnotes!—in pursuing it. He writes uncommonly good prose, although a biographer friend of mine tells me that the number of conjectural phrases Yezzi uses—“Tony would have . . .” “He must have felt . . .” “It’s possible that . . .” and the like—rubs up against the maximum allowable limit. Me, I like to think of this as symptomatic of the fact that Yezzi is an imaginative writer at his core, rather than a scholar, and should be granted certain allowances.

There are, inevitably, a few factual errors and infelicities in Late Romance, generally not having to do with Hecht himself—like W. H. Auden’s high church Anglican clergy ancestors would be amused to hear themselves referred to as “preachers.” But these are the most minor of quibbles, and quite certainly lesser offenses than I have committed in my own prose writing. Yezzi’s excellent, readable biography of Hecht, coming as it does at the same time as Knopf’s issuing of Hecht’s Collected Poems, offers a splendid opportunity to return to the work of this major American poet, with all his wounds and armor.

[1] LATE ROMANCE: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life, by David Yezzi. St. Martin’s Press. $40.00.