The Writers’ Children: the Wolfert Family Papers

When the impractical and somewhat hazardous desire to write books is passed down through a family, the results are often dangerous. Consider the Wolfert family, whose papers I recently had the pleasure of processing here in the Special Collections Processing Center. The father, Ira Wolfert, was a well-known war correspondent (his coverage of the Battle of Guadalcanal won a Pulitzer) and the author of Tucker’s People, a novel concerning the numbers racket and political corruption in 1930’s New York City which was a post-war bestseller: a feat he would never again equal. The mother, Helen Wolfert, was a school-teacher, an intermittently successful poet, and a polemical essayist on a wide range of subjects, from the space program to the Song of Songs—but was beset throughout her life with rejection and persistent lack of recognition. Their son, Michael, fancied himself a novelist but could best be described as a career bohemian, turning down plum positions in UNESCO (the then-new cultural wing of the UN) and dragging numerous wives and children from Paris to Tangier to Sweden as he attempted to produce a novel that would justify these peregrinations.  (Their daughter, Ruth, seems to have briefly entertained literary ambitions, but decided—in a move that seems commendable and somewhat fitting—to pursue a career in family therapy.)

Taken together, the Wolferts provide a lively case study of what happens when a family begins to consider itself literary. When the children were small, Helen had a habit (criticized by Ira, who felt it encouraged self-obsession) of writing down their earliest utterances in her neat teacher’s cursive. After breaking them into bar-lines she called them poetry, and gave them humorous, esoteric titles, such as “Ruth’s Response to Socrates.” The poem given this title has not survived, but if Michael Wolfert’s early work is any indication, the children’s words didn’t quite rise to such lofty heights. His first poem (which Helen titled “After seeing Walt Disney’s Pinocchio”) reads, in its entirety: “Monster’s wee / makes the sea.”

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Helen’s interest in her children was profound, and not always contained within what might be considered reasonable boundaries. The Wolfert papers contain a series of fascinating journal entries in which she details her attempts to cultivate Extra Sensory Perception, primarily through implanting dream ideas into her children’s heads while they were asleep. In a marked contrast to her poetic experiments, Ira seems to have been completely on board with the idea, and soon Helen was writing whole dreams (resembling prose poems) which she intended to transmit wholesale into the brains of Michael and Ruth – as in the fragment below.

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As with many of Helen’s projects, it took on a grandiose, almost manic cast. “I am becoming more and more convinced…” she wrote, “that when the understanding of extra-sensory perception has been perceived that the ways of evolution will then also be understood. Ditto for the institution of heredity.” That the transmission of what she called “dream images” (poems, really) between her and her children would somehow advance the field of evolutionary biology gives a sense of the high place of literature in Helen Wolfert’s world-scheme, and her willingness to draw her children into this grand arena.

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Or perhaps this self-assurance and grandiosity were necessary to Helen’s artistic survival. After the publication of an early book-length poem, Nothing is a Wonderful Thing, which dramatized the New York Jewish tenement life of her childhood and received mixed reviews, Helen had increasing difficulty publishing her work. Even her husband Ira’s growing clout as a novelist couldn’t help her find a home for her experimental novel The Birth, and as the decades passed the close engagement she’d come to enjoy from peers and editors gave way to form rejections and increasingly scathing non-comprehension.  “This is not poetry,” famed poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth informed her by letter, “but the crude makings of poetry.” To a poet who had once been read eagerly by Muriel Rukeyser and Denise Levertov, this must have seemed like somewhat arbitrary criticism.

No wonder, then, that a proud woman might turn her attentions to her children, encouraging their artistic development—particularly her son, Michael, who harbored literary ambitions from a young age. Though he won a fiction prize as an undergraduate at Harvard, Michael struggled to balance his creative work and his attempts to earn a living. After leaving his job at UNESCO to write in Morocco, alongside his increasingly bewildered family, he often sent his parents emotional letters in which he claimed that inspiration was imminent, if only he could avoid the perilous business of full-time employment.

In this, Helen provided a great deal of support. Unlike Ira, who found his son’s constant travel and financial instability irritating, Michael’s mother made it clear that she believed in him. “I want to make it possible for you to finish your novel,” she writes in 1969, as Michael is in the midst of separating  from his first wife, Paula, who later became a respected food writer, “and will give you any funds available to me for that purpose.” One imagines echoes of her own fruitless struggle to publish The Birth. “I believe in your gift, Michael,” she finishes in the same letter. “Believe in it yourself. A gift is indomitable. Nothing external can ever for a long time prevent it from asserting itself.” As with so many correspondents, she seems to have been writing to herself, in addition to her invisible interlocutor.

Whether this support, both psychological and financial, was healthy for Michael Wolfert remains an open question. His letters to his parents over the course of the many decades in which he attempted to produce the work which might justify his mother’s belief betray a desire for approval and an aloofness meant to mask that desire – especially as the book became an excuse to ask for financial support. “I am hoping to finish typing the absolute final draft of my book by the end of September,” he writes in February, 1977, using the verb typing to emphasize the ease of the situation, though later sentences make the reader wonder whether he had even a first draft. “I see no reason why I shouldn’t make the deadline, though,” he adds. “I have thought the thing out so many times.” Then, as is usual, he pivots to money matters. “We have been having a bad time of it so far as money goes… if you can come to the rescue, what can I say? It helps out quite a bit.”

He writes about his children and his wives only briefly, in passing, during births and birthdays. For the son, as well as for the mother, writing was more important than outward struggle; it was the inner life, the indomitable gift: the justification for the travails of living.

But as Michael grew older, his belief in his gift began to wane. After his second divorce, and without any published work to show for his decades of bohemian living (including many stints of manual labor to pay for at least a share of child support), he began to turn his attentions, just as his father had, to paid articles, writing for the magazine Women’s World: mostly regurgitated news stories, summarized for space concerns, with lurid titles like “Sexy Health” and “Single Moms Beware.”

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With this waning belief, Michael’s writing took on a bitter cast. His great autobiographical novel, which had previously concerned his travels in Paris and Tangier, began to turn inward, focusing instead on the Wolfert family, and his parents in particular. His mother’s lifetime of support didn’t prevent her son from characterizing her as a sexless hypochondriac; “he could see his secret, hush-hush mother, his school-teacherish, strict, spinsterish, never-satisfied mother, plotting her plots, betraying, conniving, seducing them all.”

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Indeed, Michael came to locate his own failure in what he saw as the failures of his parents. “Now he could see her reaching out to try to mother him in a fake way,” he wrote about Helen, “… to make a sissy out of him…” And although he wrote that his mother had made his father “suffer a slow agony, the agony of the fool, a mad clown’s agony, a slow castration, the death of a thousand cuts,” Ira (called Saul in the manuscript) doesn’t fare much better. Michael rendered him as a blowhard and a failure. “…[H]e inhabited the untelevised American limbo. Watching lesser men pass ahead, enemies triumph and the young forget… lost in a defeat he was trying to pretend had not occurred, with a bowed head, and an anxiety-ridden sweaty nervousness—overweight with a stink of alcohol about him.”

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A warning, perhaps, against those who want to produce literary progeny.

Oddly enough, however, Michael’s portrait of his father is not dissimilar to the main character of Ira’s own last, unpublished novel, variously entitled Orgler, Orgler’s Wife, and Orgler and the Divorced Widow.  Describing his protagonist, Jake Orgler (an authorial stand-in), he wrote, in a uniquely self-lacerating style:

“He’d flare up, though, if he was asked what he had written. ‘What the hell is that to ask a writer,’ he’d demand belligerently. “If my stuff is so lousy that you can’t remember whether you read it or not, don’t tell me. Look it up in the library.’ It was an incoherent bellow of pain… he’s in the monkey business, it’s because he has as little control over the organ on which he relies for his stories as a trained monkey has over the organ on which it relies for its peanuts… he felt excommunicated from the toiling, suffering masses of mankind, made him a playboy among them…”

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Orgler’s Wife is an incoherent portrait of an idealistic writer who dislikes writing, a husband who dislikes marriage, and a reporter who dislikes writing assignments for money. It is, above all, a document of profound personal ambivalence, and it helps explain why Ira Wolfert—by any measure the most traditionally successful of the Wolfert family—seems, by both his son’s account and his own, to have been the most disappointed of them all, even among stiff competition.

Perhaps the real inheritance passed down through the Wolfert family was not a desire to write, per se—Michael and Ira being more than a little critical of the whole affair—but a certain blend of inwardness and ambivalence: a persistence in self-examination and a doubt about whether the process will ever produce satisfactory results. These are two qualities which can produce great literature but also complicated, contradictory bonds within a family: bonds of love and frustration, obsession and neglect.

All three Wolferts (Ruth being a notable exception) spent their last years near the family home in Woodstock. Helen’s death was a source of much trauma for Michael; it led him to move home, either out of choice or financial necessity, to take possession of the family home and care for his father in his last years. As one can see from his writing, no matter how far he moved from Woodstock, he could never quite escape his inward-turning family and their obsession with literature, with its twin poles of ambition and disappointment. Indeed, his incomplete family novel, which he tried to complete after his return to Woodstock, takes up a significant portion of the archive—along with his grand, somewhat overblown notes on philosophy and the nature of existence.

But after Michael’s father’s death, he relaxed his attempts to punish his father for his perceived sins, at least in public. The eulogy he wrote, in marked contrast to his unpublished writings, attempts to rehabilitate his father from any perceived failure. He was “one of the great newspapermen of his time…” “a friend of Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, Ira Gershwin…” his “eyewitness account [of the D-Day invasion] was the only eye-witness account the Readers Digest chose to reprint for millions of new readers.” Even his lesser known works, which Michael had termed disappointments, he now called “big, important books that are still remembered today.” Perhaps he cherished the idea—in a reversal of his mother’s dreams—that his father’s glory would reflect on him, in some small way.

It is this insistence on fame and remembrance, as opposed to failure, and the son’s insistence on claiming a posthumous reputation for his father, that makes the Wolfert archive so fascinating. Outside of a small group of specialists, none of the Wolferts’ books are much remembered today. Nevertheless, each member of the family’s fight for literary glory, and the toll it took on the family as a whole, provides a fine example of how a writer’s work can intertwine with their lived existence, and how certain forms of fiction-making are really nothing more than personal delusions. All three Wolferts dreamed of being respected for their writing. But in the end, such respect eluded them, and they were no longer able to see each other, except as fragmented versions of their own reality.

 

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