James B(yron) Hall Biography
James B. Hall comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Midland, Ohio, 1918. Education: Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, 1938-39; University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1938-40; University of Iowa, Iowa City, B.A. 1947, M.A. 1948, Ph.D. 1953; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1949. Military Service: United States Army, 1941-46. Career: Writer-in-residence, Miami University, 1948-49; instructor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1952-53; writer-in-residence, University of North Carolina, Greensville, 1954; assistant professor, 1954-57, associate professor, 1958-60, and professor of English, 1960-65, University of Oregon, Eugene; director of the Writing Center, and professor of English, University of California, Irvine, 1965-68. Since 1968, professor of literature, and Provost of College V. University of California, Santa Cruz. Writer-in-residence, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Summer 1956; guest artist, Pacific Coast Festival of Art, Reed College, Portland, 1958; writer-in-residence, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1963. Co-founding editor, Northwest Review, Eugene, Oregon, 1957-60; founder and director, University of Oregon Summer Academy of Contemporary Arts, Eugene, 1959-64. Editorial consultant, Doubleday and Company, publishers (West Coast staff), 1960; cultural specialist, United States Department of State, Washington, 1964. Awards: Octave Thanet prize, 1950; Yaddo grant, 1952; Oregon Poetry prize, 1958; Chapelbrook fellowship, 1967; Institute of Creative Arts fellowship, 1967; Balch Fiction prize, 1967.
Not by the Door. New York, Random House, 1954.
TNT for Two. New York, Ace, 1956.
Racers to the Sun. New York, Obolensky, 1960; London, Corgi, 1962.
Mayo Sergeant. New York, New American Library, 1967.
15 x 3, with Herbert Gold and R.V. Cassill. New York, NewDirections, 1957.
Us He Devours. New York, New Directions, 1964.
The Short Hall: New and Collected Stories. Athens, Ohio UniversityPress, 1980.
I Like It Better Now. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
The Hunt Within. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Bereavements. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1991.
The Art and Craft of the Short Story. Murphy, Oregon, Castle PeakEditions, 1994.
Editor, with Joseph Langland, The Short Story. New York, Macmillan, 1956.
Editor, The Realm of Fiction: 61 Short Stories. New York, McGrawHill, 1965; revised edition, 1970, 1977.
Editor, with Barry Ulanov, Modern Culture and the Arts. New York, McGraw Hill, 1967; revised edition, 1972.
Editor, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs, by Jack London. SantaCruz, California, Western Tanager Press, 1981.
Editor, with Hotchkiss and Shears, Perspectives on William Everson. Blackfoot, Idaho, Castle Peak Editions, 1992.
Although the novels are interesting, the central significance of the work resides largely in the short stories; the poetry is various, and by intention ancillary to the prose.
The novels, short stories, and poetry are thematically interrelated. The reccurring motifs are the effects of competition on individuals in a system of modified capitalism such as obtains in the United States. Thus acquisitive, frustrated, evasive protagonists reccur, some of them mad or nearly so. Extreme conduct in a hostile world is not infrequent; the adjustments which protagonists make vary from callous acceptance or the exploitation of others to withdrawal, revenge, and self-destruction. In general, the work shows the difficulty of remaining human in a competitive, non-Darwinian world fashioned in large part by a democratic society. Specifically, Racers to the Sun traces the "rise" and fall of a motorcycle racer who builds his own machine; the hero is injured (used up), and then is dropped by those who exploited his talent for machinery and speed. Likewise, in the typical short stories, "Us He Devours" and "The Claims Artist," the protagonists are in some ways laudable, but in the end are victims of their own and of society's demands. A typical poem, "Pay Day Night," treats the counterproductive nature of experience in another bureaucracy, the Army.
The short stories are experimental, highly compressed, and exploit language poetically for artistic effect. They are condensed statements that very often extend the possibilities of the genre. Many of the stories are anthologized; because they are complex they apparently "teach well" in classrooms.
(1995) Increasingly the short forms of imaginative writing claim most of my attention: the short story, poetry, nonfiction articles. This comes as no surprise for increasingly the literary artist under (finance) capitalism has the obligation to justify corporate investment, and the long forms, such as the novel, presently require greater sponsorship by the publisher and more author-time dedicated to promotion(s) of the work. This drift has evident impact on modernist (and post-modernist) work and is suggested merely as ways the writer's "work place" has changed in the past twenty years. No practicing writer may claim exemption therefrom; nevertheless, work of high literary quality does get written, published, and read. The new writer, I think, faces the greatest challenges for, among other things, the institutions which once offered some order of literary apprenticeship now offer too early specialization from which there seems no rise and no return.
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James B. Hall is of that generation of writers who hit the beaches of American literature following World War II. Like Mailer and Vonnegut, Hall is a veteran. Unlike them, however, he did not write a war novel and get a literary Purple Heart. His medals are yet in the drawer. Along with having grown up on a farm, his military experiences are significant to an understanding of his social vision, and to the imagery and tropes in many of the short stories, especially "The Snow Hunter," "The Rumor of Metal," and "The War in the Forest," (in I Like It Better Now).
The three stories mentioned above are also typical of the way Hall works. They are compressed and complex, very close to poetry. The imagery is both precise and evocative; scenic and narrative paragraphs are modulated; the swift and brief dialogue often in counterpoint to the description elements. Character in Hall's stories and novels develops within a particular phenomenological environment. In other words, character is what character does in the world.
Here is a passage from Hall's second novel, Racers to the Sun. Though of course he doesn't know it, Harold "Speedy" Hill is about to enter his last race. The way that Speedy sees the arriving motorcycles is at the same time beautiful and threatening:
Delicate, the red, black, and sun-burst orange racing machines reared imperceptibly as their trailers stopped. They were vicious and lovely, imperious and chaste in orange or bone-white paint, the waspish handle bars curved downward over the front wheels, the magnetoes humped, fetal-like, in the coarse belly of the engine.
In Not by the Door, Hall has already discovered how to use scene to flesh out character. The Reverend Howard Marcham, an Episcopal minister in his first pastorate, has gotten himself into somewhat of a moral pickle. He decides to take a drive in the country, parks his car and goes for a walk. He comes upon a water moccasin sleeping on a willow branch. The snake has recently shed its skin. Hall makes the most of the biblical and mythological reference to sin, evil and rebirth. But he does it subtly, by scenic description. As a reader one "gets it" as an after-image. By this method of writing, Hall is very much a poet. The prose fiction is as burnished as a Spenserian stanza. In Hall's case, the genre boundaries among lyric, short story, and novel dissolve, and this in particular makes him a singular voice in contemporary fiction.
The Reverend Marcham is also typical of many of Hall's male characters. Very often the personae suggest some aspect of the author as self-critical. Unlike Hall, brought up Methodist, Howard Marcham is already a notch up, because he is an Episcopalian. Hall's protagonists fight to get ahead in the social world: fight for control of a motorcycle, a race, a yacht, a woman, real estate, or money; attempt to put a rein on personal anarchy but often end up in self-destruction. Howard Marcham is a pastor without spiritual depth, and he lacks a feeling for community. The reverend also prefigures Mayo Sergeant, an even emptier and more venal person.
We get to the last novel, with its much darker and sardonic social canvas, by way of Racers to the Sun. It is in the second novel that Hall begins to strike the note of class conflict and of the brutal nature of capitalism. Harold "Speedy" Hill and his boss, Jeffcoat, at the novel's beginning, are two of Hall's most sympathetic male characters. The author's rural upbringing, and his stint as a labor officer on the German docks during the occupation, are obviously influences on his social point of view. Hall favors the rural and urban working classes, those who try to make an honest living with their hands. No other prose writer writes so lovingly of tools and machinery as Hall in Racers to the Sun.
Generally, the female characters in his fiction come off better than the males. Lucern "Gunner" Greener in the racing novel is an exception. The daughter of a motorcycle agency owner, she gives herself to the winners. As soon as Hill is injured, she leaves him flat out. Gunner is a sexual metaphor for a system that uses people for its own needs and then dumps them. The motorcycle agency and the racing track owners drop the hero, too, when they can no longer profit from his status as a winner.
Whereas the system uses Speedy Hill, Mayo Sergeant uses women and the sleight-of-hand world of real estate as he glad-hands and charms and screws his way up the social ladder in Cutlass Bay, until he moves into the Moorish house on the hill and takes part possession of the racing yacht, Indus. The novel is narrated by Roberte "Bombie" Glouster, who lost his foot in World War II. Glouster represents "old money" in Cutlass Bay, and is in love with the very wealthy Hildy Moorish himself. At first Roberte befriends Mayo, who arrives from nowhere; but then he is taken in by Mayo and cuckolded as well. There is something of both Gatsby and Willy Loman in Mayo Sergeant, but Hall's novel perhaps surpasses the other two works in its savage judgment of the way we live. Hall's vision is indeed Dantean here, Hall's own version of Hell. There is not one likeable character in Mayo Sergeant, either male or female. But the novel should be reissued, for it contains some of the finest prose in American fiction today. And if the portrait of America is an unlikeable one, that is Hall's very point.
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