A Little Help from T. S. Eliot and Jim Wood

Gazing at the daffodils in early bloom outside the window of our Airbnb in Louisville I refocused on the book I was reading. The title on the next page piqued my curiosity. It was the first week of March in 2020 and Jean and I were in Mississippi for the purpose of interviewing Moon (my dad) for a memoir I was writing. Before leaving Denver, I noticed on our bookshelf, wedged between Choctaw County Chronicles by J. P. Coleman and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, one on my daughter’s college text books-A Case Study in Critical Controversy—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (Fran majored in English at Ole Miss.) I thought, I remember reading Tom Sawyer from cover to cover as a kid, but I don’t think I’ve ever read the entirety of Huck Finn. So I stuck the book in my backpack and continued packing for the trip. At that juncture, my interest was simply in reading Huckleberry Finn and had nothing to do with critical commentary. Next morning we boarded a Southwest flight to New Orleans. Rationale? The flight to NOLA is cheaper than to Jackson or Memphis and I needed an oyster fix. I read Huck Finn at the gate as we waited to board, on the plane, and after a visit to Felix’s in the French Quarter, in the rental car on our journey north to Louisville and again that evening in the Airbnb. Now the morning after our first day with Moon, finishing Clemens’s masterpiece, I stared at the title on the next page- The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End by T. S. Eliot. I decided to keep reading. Moon and Sunn was never the same. Eliot’s keen literary insights informed the writing process in at least three critical ways: the story’s movement, fuzzy character sensibilities, and why I possessed the ability to write about the place and experiences of my growing up.

First, allow me to explain how Eliot’s comments prompted me to rearrange the movement of the story. He writes, “In the writing of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain had two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and his experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River. It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending.”[i] Eliot’s words made perfect sense, all the while, revealing the weakness of my initial story. I knew it was Moon who gave Moon and Sunn style. There aren’t many real-life characters more interesting than Moon, so at this point Moon and Sunn had natural style but no discernable literary form. The initial story rested on actual physical/geographical movements captured in fishing trips, Ackerman to Choctaw Lake and back again, Ackerman to the Mississippi delta and back again, Ackerman to Grenada Lake and back again, and of course, Ackerman to Soldotna, Alaska and back again, all in chronological order. The story was nothing more than a running history of Moon’s amazing and harrowing adventures with no ending, happy or otherwise. Interesting, because of the one-of-a-kind character, but nevertheless falling short of the book’s potential. Eliot’s phrase, “but for the River”, captured my imagination and helped me to identify and focus on the other currents/movements of the story percolating inside my psyche, some swirling and obvious like my struggle to accept and love my dad, others significant but more subtle. From there, I scrolled through the manuscript and identified stories that advanced both the chronological and emotional movements. That’s how the story of the coonskin cap was chosen to begin the book. That story advances, or sets the stage, for the tension of the primary movements in the entire book. The point is--recognizing the ebb and flow of the emotional/relational movement allowed me to detour from a strictly chronological story and rearrange the script paying attention to the interaction and advance of both movements. Finally I was toying with some semblance of form! However there was still something not right, missing, and out of sync. I sent the early manuscript to a friend in Baton Rouge, Jim Wood-a risk since he is an avid LSU fanJ! Among other things, he suggested I write, and by this point, rewrite the entire story based upon the three days of our interview with Moon. After hyperventilating realizing all the work involved in rearranging the entire book, I knew his suggestion was spot on. I finally had a third movement that helped hold and bring all movements of the story together. Of course, any writer after working diligently on a project for an extended length of time would rather submit to a root canal without anesthesia than face the arduous task of rearranging and therefore rewriting. Also, I had to swallow my pride and come to terms with the fact I felt a bit foolish because Jim’s suggestion was the way the actual story unfolded in the first place, but at that point I was simply too close to the action, or third movement, to realize it. Sometimes you can’t see what’s right in front of your own eyes! Alas, Jim’s suggestion helped me create a kind of story within the story, which triangulates throughout the book off the three primary movements. Of course, there are other minor movements woven into these three movements-for example, my use of A River Runs Through It as a way to explain how I came to face my pain, realize, accept, and finally write about the valuable life lessons learned from Moon. As I say in the introduction, “I learned to fish behind greatness, not knowing all the while, I was learning how to be a minister.” By the end of the book, I explain how I felt compelled to write it all down.

Another one of Eliot’s observations that resonated with me and helped me understand what I intuitively knew but couldn’t get my head around was how to present the real Moon and not subject him to recognized and accepted societal sensibilities. I knew things about Moon that defied almost every social category. But how to get that across to my readers wasn’t easy. Writing was like feeling my way in the dark, I kept coming up against barriers I couldn’t or wouldn’t cross, lest I present an untrue picture of Moon. It was these barriers and my recalcitrance that helped the book land where it needed or was intended to land. Eliot writes, “In Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain wrote a much greater book than he could have known he was writing. Perhaps all great works of art mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning: Certainly, Huckleberry Finn is one book of Mark Twain’s which, as a whole, has this unconsciousness…… For Huckleberry Finn, neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable. No worldly success or social satisfaction, no domestic consummation would be worthy of him; a tragic end also would reduce him to the level of those whom we pity. Huck Finn must come from nowhere and be bound for nowhere. His is not the independence of the typical or symbolic American Pioneer, but the independence of a vagabond. His existence questions the values of America as much as the values of Europe; he is as much an affront to the “pioneer spirit” as he is the “business enterprise”; he is in a state of nature as detached as the state of the saint. In a busy world, he represents the loafer; in an acquisitive and competitive world, he insists on living from hand to mouth.”[ii]

I didn’t know how Moon and Sunn should end figured out in my mind, I just continued to write trying to remain true to the man I knew. And somehow the book not only landed exactly where it was intended, I’m most proud of the fact, it presented the real Moon.

Lastly, the following words of Eliot enabled me to understand why I had the ability to write about the place and experience of my boyhood. “There are, perhaps, only two ways in which a writer can acquire the understanding of environment which he can later turn to account: by having spent his childhood in that environment—that is, living in a period of life in which one experiences much more than one is aware of; and by having had to struggle for a livelihood in that environment—a livelihood bearing no direct relation to any intention of writing about it, of using it as literary material.”[iii] This simple explanation gave me the writing confidence to “go for it”, to lean further into my memories and my descriptions of those memories.

So that’s how the happenstance selection of a book to read on a writing trip which I had no clue would so greatly influence the book, combined with the brilliant advice of a friend, who happens to be an LSU fan, served to help create Moon and Sunn.

[i] The Boy and the River: Without Beginning or End, T. S. Eliot, in A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Second Edition, p. 286. [ii] Ibid, p. 288 [iii] Ibid, p. 277.

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