William Wharton Biography
William Wharton comments:
Name is a pseudonym. Nationality: American. Born: Phildalphia, Pennsylvania, 1925. Education: The University of California, Los Angeles. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Infantry, 1943-47. Career: Teacher, 1950-60; since 1960, full-time painter and writer. Awards: American Book award, 1980.
Birdy. New York, Knopf, and London, Cape, 1979.
Dad. New York, Knopf, and London, Cape, 1981.
A Midnight Clear. New York, Knopf, and London, Cape, 1982.
Scumbler. New York, Knopf, and London, Cape, 1984.
Pride. New York, Knopf, 1985; London, Cape, 1986.
Tidings. New York, Holt, 1987; London, Cape, 1988.
Franky Furbo. New York, Holt, and London, Cape, 1989.
Last Lovers. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Granta, 1991.
Wrongful Deaths. London, Granta, 1995.
Ever After: A Father's True Story. New York, Newmarket Press, 1995.
Houseboat on the Seine. New York, Newmarket Press, 1996.
Fantasy and intimacy are two main thrusts of my work. I usually write in the first person, continuous present to eliminate the artificial barrier of time and teller. One, too often, finds fiction told in the third person, past. It is a remnant from the "presidium" of the theatre, separating players, participants, from audience. I want to, as much as possible, dissolve that barrier from my work.
I use multiple print faces whenever possible to minimize referrals (He said, she said, Harry said), or narrative actions inserted merely to establish speaker.**
I work from idea, to create stimulating, challenging dialogue with the reader, not merely to entertain. I write only about things I know, so there is often an aura of autobiography in the work. Actually the reader should be seduced to the material, so, in a sense, it is biography.
(1995) I think we are living in the age of the literate illiterate, that is, they have been taught to read, but don't. Probably the responsibility can be placed on schools, TV, and films. The wonder of creating a personal world from words in a dialogue with the writer is being lost. Too bad.
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In Birdy, William Wharton's first novel, the title character longs to fly. But this is only part of his larger goal. Birdy seeks a way to "know" his life without "knowledge," to move toward a free and unselfconscious life more in tune with the rhythms of the world and nature than the life offered him as a human male. Much of Birdy is taken up with meticulous descriptions of the life cycles of pigeons and canaries. It is from living as closely as possible with these birds that Birdy hopes to learn how to live his ideal life. Set in contrast to Birdy is his friend Alfonso, a wrestler who is looking to "pin" the world any way he can to gain revenge or some advantage. Both Birdy and Alfonso are drawn into World War II, and the horror of the war drives Birdy out of his human self. He begins imitating a baby bird waiting to be fed. It is Alfonso, himself damaged—physically, where it can most harm his image of himself—who tries to "feed" Birdy what he needs to know to be willing to become human again, though Alfonso is in no hurry to rejoin the race, either. So much of Birdy is taken up with the minute particulars of the lives of the birds that Alfonso's story is only sketchily told and this asymmetry of bird life over human life makes for tedious reading at times.
Birdy's greatest happiness during his time of involvement with his birds comes not from his attempts to fly, but during the nesting time when he helps the young birds survive and learn to fly. Birdy's involvement with the canaries is centered on the female he calls "Birdie." (He names her dark, violent mate "Alfonso.") Birdy identifies strongly with the bird's nurturing side, envies her her female role. This is a thread that is part of several other Wharton characters, most notably the title character in Scumbler. Scum, as he calls himself, is an aging American painter living with his family in Paris. Scum at times wishes he were a woman, even telling one young woman to teach him how to love her "as a woman would." Scum rents out a string of apartments, rooms, and shelters he has fixed up. He calls these his "nests." (He also thinks of his paintings as "nests" or "hideouts.") Scum, like Birdy, attempts to recreate his own existence: "I'm always trying to design my life … it has to be lived on purpose with purpose." His purpose in life is as much nesting and nurturing (though his own children hardly figure in the novel at all) as it is painting. Like Birdy, Scumbler is episodic, almost Quixotic, and relies on a string of epiphanies rather than on any plot resolution for its effect. Both novels end abruptly, with visions of the title characters' personal Utopias.
Dad is Wharton's most conventional novel, the story of three generations of men in a family. The oldest man is dying even while enjoying a period of restored youth; his son watches and thinks of himself as "next in line," while the third, not yet out of his teens, is impatient to get on with his life out from under the cautionary umbrella of his father's wishes for him. The grandfather is a grand character, full of life and honest surprise, but the others are little more than place holders, stock figures used to illustrate the contrasts Wharton wants to establish. Dad is Wharton's longest novel, but brings little new insight to the generational conflict.
Set at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, A Midnight Clear is at once Wharton's most direct and believable novel and that which most clearly illustrates the absurdity of human conflict. Two groups of soldiers, one American, one German, are holed up in a mountain valley. Using a snowman, a scarecrow, and a Christmas tree the two sides communicate their desire for peace with one another. Against all their best efforts death and war descend on the scene. Wharton's always meticulous prose takes on a hardboiled sound in A Midnight Clear: "My being squad leader is also another story. It's another story the way Peter Rabbit is another story from Crime and Punishment. "
In Pride Wharton's efforts at using a nonhuman way of life to throw light on human moral questions is much more successful than in Birdy. The novel is set in 1938, as the Depression is easing up and unions are working their way into more industries. The young narrator's father is being threatened by union-breakers. The family travels to the sea shore while the father sorts out his thoughts. While they are there a lion escapes from a boardwalk sideshow and kills a man who has tortured him. The double meaning of the word "pride"—honor and the family group—is manipulated by Wharton to parallel the lion's condition with that of the father. The lion, whose pride(s) has been destroyed, goes to his death because he has nowhere else to go. The father gathers his pride(s) and sets off on a course of self-reliance.
A personal tragedy in 1988 informs Ever After, a narrative nonfiction account of the circumstances surrounding the fatal accident that took from Wharton his daughter Kate, her husband Bert, and their two children. Parts of the book are written in first person as Kate. Last Lovers, written in the aftermath of his loss, is a painful novel with a glimmer of hope: an American expatriate painter, down and out in Paris, finds love and fulfillment with a homeless woman two decades his senior.
—William C. Bamberger
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