An activist in arts and letters. Hortense Calisher, new president of American Academy
New York — HORTENSE CALISHER, a highly regarded short-story writer and novelist, spends much of her time making up for a certain shortness of memory, and short-sightedness in general, in American culture. ``In some countries - for instance in Russia - what writers write is important; so important that they can be shot for it,'' she says. ``And, while I don't crave that, I would like my country to realize, as it sometimes does, that art has a real connection with life. We still haven't the recognized connection with a large part of our nation.''
Late last month, Ms. Calisher assumed the presidency of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, while retaining, until May, the presidency of PEN American. PEN's charter pushes it into a worldwide political arena in which it champions the rights of writers and monitors the treatment of those who have been imprisoned. The academy functions more as an august body of distinguished artists who confer awards and honors and money on artists young and old.
In either case, the hope is to make the role of an artist remembered and felt with the weight it deserves.
Calisher's own work has made itself felt in important places. Full of honors (including two Guggenheim fellowships, four O.Henry story awards, and a National Endowment Fellowship), she easily exceeds her own modest self-appraisal as ``a writer of continuing reputation.''
Her short stories have won tumultuous critical acclaim, and John Leonard said of the book she labored on for seven years, ``Mysteries of Motion,'' that it ``may be a masterpiece.'' A new novel, ``Age,'' will be published in September.
Surrounded by the colorful tapestry of art and found objects that fill her home, very much like the images that crowd her writing, she works her hands constantly, occasionally running them through her dark hair. Her long face becomes pensive in a continuous variety of expressions. She is forever jumping up to fetch smoked almonds or a magazine with a specific quotation or some tea for a visitor.
Yet there is an almost tranquil dignity in the way she composes sentences, stringing carefully chosen words into thoughts.
``Societies that are opening up and in tumult have great explosions of literature,'' she says, adding that America is in ``a second phase, where our `Moby Dicks' are mythic. Our new nation and new world carried us far.'' And while ``the impulses are still in our literature'' to produce greatness, it's clear she adds that one ``can't legislate it'' into existence.
What one can do is to work in organizations that help writers and artists bring those impulses to life; and her organizational labors have helped pushed the struggle along.
``I have a great admiration for her,'' says E.L. Doctorow, a PEN board member interviewed by telephone. ``I think she's very sound and has good ideas and excellent instincts. ... Basically to focus on [the] important work: advocacy of the freedom to write, questions of censorship, first amendment freedoms ... and she understands that's really the central work. Also her sense of the worldwide community of writers.''
``Writers are shy about connecting with each other,'' she says. ``But I've found they do it well, when they can do it with a common purpose.'' An overriding purpose that comes to hand is to bring some measure of public recognition to that worldwide community of writers and the importance to humanity of what it is they do.
Wistfully, she recalls the obituary of Herman Melville in the New York Times: ``Herman Melville, a writer, died today.''
``People stop reading [even recognized authors] when they die. They come back eventually, if they're good enough. But you don't hear Nabokov talked about now the way you did when he was alive.
``What we don't do here ... is retrospective reviewing: That is the idea that a writer is going to produce a certain oeuvre in his or her time and, when the new book comes out, you will take it up in the reflection of the old. Now, that almost never happens. When it does, certain things will emerge.''
One thing that will emerge, she hopes, is an understanding of the continuing legacy writers leave for one another, a realization ``that literature doesn't spring from the brow of Jove.'' Instead, it comes from the toil of people practicing an essentially lonely craft, who occasionally band together in organizations like the academy, from which union she derives ``a feeling that I am with, in certain ways, my own kind ... people who work all their lives more or less by themselves.''
She sat for three years on the academy's literary awards committee, reading the works of undiscovered writers, looking for those that merited praise and prizes. This kind of close interest, she feels, is required to nurture our literature. And organizations like the academy ought to be active in making it happen.
``At times,'' she says, the academy ``has been something more of a cultural force in the life of the nation.'' She would like to see it move in that direction again. ``I don't think of it as an august institution which should be removed by its excellence from the nation. It has the kind of thing the the nation can use.''
Her presidency at PEN set similarly ambitious goals, although her activist approach to the job grated on the staff, and sometimes on the board itself, which has also rumbled with complaints about her taking the academy job.
The academy's executive director, Margaret M. Mills, describes it as ``relatively conservative,'' and ``not really an activist organization like PEN.'' Members of the academy must all be voted into membership, which is a lifetime honor and frequently comes at the culmination of a life's work when, Ms. Mills says, one tends to become ``more staid, less likely to make waves.''
If the academy doesn't make waves, it seems likely that Calisher will at least encourage it to make noise, to trumpet out the obscurity that too often surrounds art and artists.